When Russian President Vladimir Putin won a fourth term in 2018, some right-wing leaders in Italy were quick to convey their congratulations.
“The will of the people in these Russian elections is unequivocal,” Giorgia Meloni, the head of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, said on social media at the time.
That remark has resurfaced in recent weeks, with Meloni poised to become Italy’s first female prime minister, after the collapse of Mario Draghi’s government triggered a national election scheduled for Sunday.
Brothers of Italy party is likely to emerge as the largest political camp and forge a right-wing coalition government with Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
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The prospect of a coalition with parties that have historically friendly ties to Russia is increasing fears that Rome could nudge closer to Moscow, at a time when Europe is doing all it can to end the invasion of Ukraine.
“This debate is a legitimate one,” Aldo Ferrari, the head of the Russia programme at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told Al Jazeera. “But the importance of [their ties with Moscow] is being blown out of proportion and used in the electoral campaign as a topic to brandish against the adversary.”
Meloni’s main opponent did not hesitate to sound the alarm.
Enrico Letta, the leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, portrayed himself as a candidate fighting “for an Italy that will be in the heart of Europe”.
“On the international stage, those who would be happiest if Giorgia Meloni won would be Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and, in Europe, Viktor Orban,” Letta said, referring to the former US president, Russian leader and Hungary’s nationalist, Moscow-friendly premier.
Meloni has sought to soothe concerns by condemning Russia’s “unacceptable large-scale act of war” and stressing Rome’s ties with the European Union and NATO.
“We will be guarantors, without ambiguity, of Italy’s positioning and of our uttermost support to the heroic battle of the Ukrainian people,” Meloni said at her party’s headquarters last month.
According to ISPI’s Ferrari, Meloni has “kept a clear stance on Ukraine” and concerns about Russia relations are inflated.
“I don’t see a shift on her positions as likely,” he said.
Meanwhile, the election follows suggestions that foreign actors might have attempted to meddle in voting campaigns.
COPASIR, the parliamentary committee that oversees national intelligence agencies, raised the possibility of disinformation, cyberattacks and political and economic pressure emerging from Russia, saying Italy was at risk of becoming “the lock pick with which to break Europe’s Atlanticism.”
A report drafted by the committee warned of a “low-intensity war” being fought alongside the conflict in Ukraine.
“This is a hybrid warfare within the cyberspace that justifies adopting every measure to protect our digital system,” it said.
Fabio Giglietto, who heads the Mapping Italian News research programme at the University of Urbino, said while disinformation was not new, it bears fruit in electoral times.
“We are particularly concerned about strategies that are difficult to observe because they take place away from the political realm,” Giglietto told Al Jazeera.
Among them are Facebook groups that purport to be apolitical – such as religious groups – but that are used to reach malleable voters.
“If I attempt to reach people who are already politically engaged, it will be difficult for me to change their opinion. Whereas if I have a page dedicated to religion, people are more likely to be receptive and I can reach them when they are less prepared to defend themselves from external influence,” Giglietto said.
According to him, fake Facebook accounts are less of a problem than the spread of fake or misleading information.
While Brothers of Italy adopted a more conciliatory tone in its official campaign, the ideas circulated on social media by its supporters often match those of the “alt-right” nationalist movement such as a deep distrust of politicians, fears of a left-wing cultural hegemony, and the “war” on free speech.
“Regardless of how they present themselves, these calls point to their ideas being those of the extreme right rather than its moderate wing,” said Giglietto.
While the Brothers of Italy has tried to blend into the cultural and political mainstream, critics point to the party’s origins, which trace back to the Italian Social Movement founded in the aftermath of World War II by supporters of executed leader Benito Mussolini, the founder of the National Fascist Party.
In a campaign video message, Meloni affirmed that Italy’s political right had “handed fascism over to history”.
Yet, the party is represented to this day by a neo-fascist symbol, a tricoloured flame, and counts some of Mussolini’s descendants as direct allies, including Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini, a great-grandson of the leader, who was a Brothers of Italy candidate at the European Parliament in 2019.
Meloni’s allies have also come under the spotlight following allegations of illicit financing from the Kremlin.
Salvini has repeatedly denied wrongdoing after a recording was leaked in 2019 of one of his aides discussing a secret oil deal in Moscow.
Berlusconi, who is set to make a reappearance after a ban preventing him from holding public office was lifted, is known to be friends with Putin, the pair having stayed in each other’s holiday homes.
In the aftermath of Draghi’s demise in July, foreign minister Luigi Di Maio alleged the Russian leadership was at work to “destabilise Italy and Europe.”
Italian newspapers reported that Salvini’s League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia were in touch with the Russian embassy weeks before they withdrew support for Draghi’s government, a move which ultimately led to its collapse, prompting speculations that the Kremlin may be meddling in Italian politics. Both denied any wrongdoing.
Last week, a US intelligence report claiming Russia gave $300m to political parties in more than 12 countries jolted Italy’s election campaign and prompted right-wing leaders to swiftly deny receiving clandestine cash.
Adolfo Urso, a senior Brothers of Italy politician who also heads COPASIR told state broadcaster RAI that “at the moment” there was no indication Italy was among the recipients.
According to ISPI’s Ferrari, Draghi’s fall was “undoubtedly welcomed” by Russia.
But while right-wing parties in the past found an ally in Russia on positions including national sovereignty, the current political climate is remarkably different.
“The invasion of Ukraine has now rendered a shift towards Moscow untenable,” he said.