The election in Italy is set to crown Meloni as head of the most right-wing government since World War II

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  • Italy votes for new, slimmed-down parliament on September 25
  • Nationalist Giorgia Meloni predicted to top the polls
  • The polls say a last-minute surprise is not impossible
  • Economic, diplomatic problems await the next prime minister

ROME, Sept 22 (Reuters) – Italy’s general election on Sunday could make history and give the country its first female prime minister at the head of its most right-wing government since World War II.

Giorgia Meloni’s nationalist Brothers of Italy (FdI) won just under 4% of the vote in 2018, but the party is expected to take around 25% this time and propel an alliance of conservative partners to a clear parliamentary majority.

“There’s this idea in Italy that we’ve tried everyone else, so let’s try it now,” said Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of political risk consultancy Teneo.

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If the tough-talking Meloni succeeds, she will face a number of daunting challenges, including skyrocketing energy costs, a suffocating mountain of debt, a possible recession and an increasingly dangerous conflict in Ukraine.

The 45-year-old Roman, who promises a crackdown on immigration and a tax cut, will also have big shoes to fill.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the widely respected former head of the European Central Bank, was seen as a reassuring figure by international investors, but he resigned in July after a mutiny in his national unity government.

Unlike all other major party bosses, Meloni refused to join Draghi’s coalition and instead saw her popularity soar from the opposition benches, where she skillfully denounced the painful measures the government was taking to tackle the COVID-19 crisis.

“Meloni is a great communicator, but faces significant financial constraints and doesn’t have much experience, so she probably won’t enjoy a long honeymoon,” Piccoli said.

CLOSER COMPETITION?

Meloni could also end up with a much smaller majority than analysts had predicted when a poll took effect on September 9, or even fall just short, opening the way for the kind of political instability that regularly plagues Italy.

Ten days ago, the right-wing bloc, which includes Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, was seen getting around 45% of the vote – a score that should give them more than 60% of all parliamentary seats.

But since then there has been widespread speculation that Salvini’s League, under constant attack because of its historically close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has fallen, while the leftist 5-Star Movement has risen.

Adding to the uncertainty, voters will choose a slimmed-down parliament with the number of seats in the lower house reduced to 400 from 630, while the Senate goes to 200 seats from 315. This complicates efforts to predict the outcome.

“One effect of the reduction in the number of Senate seats is that it takes relatively little in percentage terms to go from a large majority to a very reduced majority,” says Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of the YouTrend surveys.

NEO-FASCIST ROOTS

The election campaign has been fought in the shadow of a sweltering summer, with little sign of much voter interest and no televised debate between the various party leaders.

The right-wing bloc has rolled out old promises to cut taxes, lower the retirement age and prevent migrants from reaching Italy by boat from North Africa, with Meloni proposing a naval blockade to prevent asylum seekers from reaching the sea.

Opponents say such a move would be illegal and unworkable.

The 5-star has pledged to ensure welfare benefits for the poor – a message that has resonated in the less affluent South, which leaders across the political spectrum have criss-crossed in recent days, eager to win a army of undecided voters.

The main centre-left Democratic Party has warned repeatedly that electing Meloni is dangerous because of the FdI’s neo-fascist origins and its ties to Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban, who has been accused by the EU of abusing the rule of law.

Meloni has played down her own far-right past, saying her group is a mainstream force akin to Britain’s Conservative Party and fully supports Ukraine in its war with Russia.

But on the campaign trail, she has been careful not to alienate core supporters who associate with the far right.

“I dream of a nation where people who have had to keep their heads down for many years and pretend they have different ideas so as not to be ostracized can now say what they think,” she told a meeting earlier on the week.

Voting takes place on Sunday from 07:00 to 23:00 (05:00-21:00 GMT), with full results by Monday morning.

Even if there is a clear result, the next government is unlikely to take office before the end of October, with the new parliament not meeting until October 13.

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Reporting by Crispian Balmer Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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