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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Italy’s right confident of election win at last rallies before vote

Italy's right-wing parties will stage a last rally on Thursday in a final push ahead of elections set to install a one-time fan of Mussolini as the country's first female prime minister.

Italy's right confident of election win at last rallies before vote
League party leader Matteo Salvini poses for a selfie with supporters on the election campaign trail. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party was leading the last polls by large majority before a polling embargo kicked in two weeks before election day.

With opinion polling suspended, many are now wondering whether a last minute surprise result for other parties could tip the balance – but the right remains confident of a large majority.

READ ALSO: Italy’s far right set for easy victory under Giorgia Meloni

Meloni and her allies, Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League and ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, look very likely to form the first far-right led government in Rome since World War II.

The elections in Italy are being closely watched abroad, and Meloni has sought to reassure investors worried about her links with Italy’s post-fascist movement, while at the same time wooing voters at home who are disaffected with the status quo.

Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi – who at nearly 86 has conducted a largely virtual campaign so far – will hold a rally in Rome Thursday evening before a final day of campaigning ahead of a news blackout on Saturday.

Meloni will then head to the southern city of Naples on Friday, amid indications that the populist Five Star Movement – which won the biggest share of the vote in 2018 – is gaining ground there.

EXPLAINED: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

Supporters of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which is expected to win Sunday’s general elections. Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Runaway inflation, a looming winter energy crisis, and tensions with Russia over the war in Ukraine have dominated debate in a country only just recovering from the trauma of coronavirus.

Europe also looms large. Meloni no longer urges an exit from the euro but says she will assert Italy’s national interests, while the right-wing coalition’s programme calls for a review of EU rules on public spending.

The coalition members do not always see eye to eye, however, raising questions about the stability – and longevity – of their potential future government.

Meloni and Salvini both pursue a far-right nationalist “Italians First” agenda and demand an end to mass migration, while emphasising traditional family values.

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

But while Salvini has long admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and has criticised Western sanctions over Ukraine, Meloni is strongly supportive of Kyiv and is committed to NATO.

Their tensions have added some drama to a campaign otherwise subdued by the almost inevitability of the right’s victory since July, when Prime Minister Mario Draghi called the snap vote after his coalition collapsed.

The Russian embassy in Italy tweeted four photos Thursday showing Putin with almost all the party leaders running on Sunday – with the notable exception of Meloni.

“From the recent history of relations between Russia and Italy. We have some memories,” the embassy wrote, in what was widely viewed as some pre-election trolling.

Meloni was likely not featured in the Russian photos because she has risen from almost out of nowhere, giving her an outsider status that resonates with voters sick of the rotating cast of politicians who have led Italy in recent years.

Matteo Salvini (League) and Giorgia Meloni (Borthers of Italy)

Political differences between Giorgia Meloni (Brothers of Italy) and Matteo Salvini (League) raise doubts over the stability of the far-right bloc. Photo by Luca PRIZIA / AFP

Flavio Chiapponi of the University of Bologna said it was “one of the worst election campaigns of the post-war period, there was no confrontation on policies or concrete measures to be taken”.

Brothers of Italy was last polling at around 24-25 percent, ahead of the centre-left Democratic Party on 21 or 22 percent, followed by the populist Five Star Movement on 13-15 percent.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy party suspends candidate for praising Hitler

With her allies – the League around 12 percent and Berlusconi’s party at eight percent – Meloni’s coalition looks on course to secure between 45 and 55 percent of seats in parliament.

But Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta is putting his hopes in the 40 percent of Italians who say they either will not vote, or have yet to decide.

And experts caution that in a country that has seen almost 70 governments since World War II, predicting politics is notoriously difficult.

“In Italy, the election is decided the day people go to vote,” noted Marc Lazar, professor at the universities of Sciences Po in Paris and Luiss in Rome.

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ENERGY

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

After Russian energy giant Gazprom suspended gas deliveries to Italy on Saturday, many are wondering what consequences the stoppage will have on the country’s energy supplies.

What does the shut-off of Russian gas supplies mean for Italy?

What’s going on?

Over the past three days, Italy has received none of the gas supplies it expected from Russian energy giant Gazprom. 

The impasse officially started last Saturday, when Gazprom announced it would not be able to deliver gas to Italy due to “the impossibility of gas transport through Austria” – Russian gas supplies are delivered to Italy through the Trans Austria Gas pipeline (TAG), which reaches into Italian territory near Tarvisio, Friuli Venezia-Giulia. 

READ ALSO: Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Though Gazprom originally attributed the problem to Austrian gas grid operators refusing to confirm “transport nominations”, Austria’s energy regulator E-Control said that the Russian energy mammoth had failed to comply with new contractual agreements whose introduction had been “known to all market actors for months”. 

Additional information about the incident only emerged on Monday, when Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italy’s national energy provider ENI, said that supplies had been suspended after Gazprom failed to pay a 20-million-euro guarantee to Austrian gas carrier Gas Connect. 

Descalzi also added that ENI was ready to step in and deposit the guarantee itself in order to unblock deliveries to Italy.

Logo of Italian energy regulator ENI.

Italian energy regulator ENI said it was ready to pay Austrian gas carriers a 20-million-euro guarantee to unblock deliveries. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s ENI ready to pay guarantee to unblock Russian gas

At the time of writing, however, no agreement between ENI, Gas Connect and Gazprom has yet been reached, with the stoppage expected to continue until Wednesday at the very least.

What would an indefinite stoppage mean for Italy’s upcoming winter season?

Though energy giant ENI appears to be confident that a compromise between all the involved parties will be reached shortly, the “indefinite shutdown” of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline in early September is somewhat of a menacing precedent. 

After fears of a long-term supply suspension cropped up over the weekend, outgoing Ecological Transition Minister Roberto Cingolani publicly reassured Italians that “barring any catastrophic events, Italy will have the whole of winter covered”.

It isn’t yet clear what exactly Cingolani meant by “catastrophic”, but the latest available data seem to suggest that Italy wouldn’t have to resort to emergency measures, chiefly gas rationing, should Gazprom halt deliveries indefinitely. 

Italian Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani.

Outgoing Minister for Ecological Transition Roberto Cingolani said that, “barring any catastrophic events”, Italy will have enough gas supplies for the winter. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

In 2021, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Italy received around 20 billion cubic metres of Russian gas per year, which accounted for about 40 percent of the country’s annual gas imports. 

But, thanks to the supply diversification strategy carried out by outgoing PM Mario Draghi and his cabinet over the past few months, Russian gas currently accounts for, in the words of ENI’s CEO Claudio Descalzi, only “about nine to 10 percent” of Italian gas imports.

READ ALSO: Italy’s Draghi criticises Germany over latest energy plan

Granted, Italy still receives (or, given the current diplomatic deadlock, expects to receive) a non-negligible total of 20 million cubic metres of Russian gas per day. But, should supply lines between Rome and Moscow be shut off until further notice, Italy could fall back on existing gas stocks to meet winter consumption demands. 

Last Wednesday, Cingolani announced that the country had already filled up 90 percent of its national gas stocks – Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas – and the government was now working to bring that number up by an additional two or three percentage points.

These supplies, Cingolani said, are set to give Italy “greater flexibility” with respect to potential “spikes in winter consumption”.

Gas storage station in Loenhout, Belgium.

Italy has nine storage plants for an overall storage capacity of 17 billion cubic metres of gas. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Finally, Italy is expected to receive an additional four billion cubic metres of gas from North Europe over the winter months – deliveries which will be complemented by the first shipments of LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) from Egypt.

Both of these developments are expected to further reinforce Italy’s position in the energy market for the cold season.

What about the long-term consequences of an indefinite stoppage?

An indefinite shut-off of Russian gas supplies would effectively anticipate Italy’s independence from Moscow by nearly two years – Draghi’s plan has always been to wean the country off Russian gas by autumn 2024.

However, the Italian government’s strategy is (or, perhaps, was, as a new government is about to be formed) centred around a gradual phasing out of Russian supplies. As such, although not immediately problematic, a ‘cold-turkey’ scenario might create supply issues for Italy at some point during 2023.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How much are energy prices rising in Italy this autumn?

Granted, Algeria, whose supplies currently make up 36 percent of Italy’s national demand, is expected to ramp up gas exports and provide Rome with nine billion cubic metres of gas in 2023.

But, even when combined with LNG supplies from several African partners – these should add up to a total of four billion cubic metres of gas in 2023 – there’s a risk that Algerian gas might not be able to replace Russian gas on its own.

An employee works at the Tunisian Sergaz company, that controls the Tunisian segment of the Trans-Mediterranean (Transmed) pipeline, through which natural gas flows from Algeria to Italy.

Algerian gas supplies, which reach Italy through the Trans-Med pipeline (pictured above), might not be enough to replace Russian gas in 2023. Photo by Fethi BELAID / AFP

Therefore, should an indefinite shut-off be the ultimate outcome of the current diplomatic incident between ENI, Austria’s Gas Connect and Russia’s Gazprom, Italy, this time in the person of new PM Giorgia Meloni, might have to close deals with other suppliers or ask existing suppliers to ramp up production. 

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