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ROME — Italy’s election campaign came alive just two days before the vote, after the right-wing coalition who are favorites to win found themselves at the center of an international outcry.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is part of the right-wing alliance, received a public rebuke from Ukraine after saying Vladimir Putin was only trying to replace Kyiv’s government with “decent people”.
At the same time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen raised concerns about Italy’s potential shift to the right and whether it would lead to an erosion of democratic standards, a comment that sparked a furious reaction from candidates vying for power in Rome.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League, accused von der Leyen of making an unprecedented threat on the eve of the election of a sovereign country. The rows risk derailing the right-wing campaign, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, with just hours of campaigning before Sunday’s vote.
Meloni has tried to reassure everyone that she is a safe pair of hands and has expressed her full alignment with the United States and NATO since the invasion of Ukraine, but she has been undermined by his right-wing alliance allies. Berlusconi’s comments about Putin followed Salvini’s remarks, in which he questioned the use of sanctions against Moscow.
Berlusconi defended Putin in a prime-time Rai1 interview on Thursday, saying he “was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to invent this special operation.” The plan, he said, was for Russian troops to come in “within a week to replace Zelenskyy’s government with a government of decent people.”
The comments provoked a strong reaction from Berlusconi’s opponents. Enrico Letta, leader of the Left Democrats, said: “If the right wins on Sunday, the first to celebrate will be Putin.”
Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist Azione party, said Berlusconi spoke “like one of Putin’s generals” and “took us out of any European and Atlantic alliance”.
Serhii Nykyforov, Zelensky’s spokesman, marveled at Berlusconi’s confidence in Putin. He told La Repubblica: “The President of Russia has been in power for more than 20 years… He has killed or imprisoned all his political opponents. He sent an army of murderers, rapists and into the territory of a sovereign state… And now he threatens the world with nuclear weapons. So, if we understand correctly, Silvio Berlusconi trusts him and uses his example to define who is an honest person and who is not?
Meanwhile, von der Leyen told a Princeton University lecture that she remained skeptical of a right-wing government’s ability to stay on good terms with Europe, when she warned that the EU had “the tools” to deal with Italy if things go in a “difficult direction”. It was seen as a hint that the European Commission could cut funds to Italy if it was seen as violating the bloc’s democratic standards.
Salvini tweeted: “What is a threat? It is shameful arrogance,” and asked von der Leyen to “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people.” Later he said: “If someone in Brussels thinks of cutting the funds that belong to Italy, because the League wins the elections, then we have to rethink this Europe”, adding that “it’s ‘institutional bullying’.
League senator Stefano Candiani said von der Leyen’s comments were “concerning and above all dangerous. Real and real interference from abroad to condition the Italian vote.