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ROME — Italy’s election campaign burst into life just two days before the vote, after the coalition of right-wingers who are favorites to win found themselves at the center of an international outcry.
Former premier 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 the Kyiv government with “decent people.”
At the same time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen raised concerns about Italy’s potential lurch to the right and whether it would result in the erosion of democratic standards, a comment that triggered a furious response 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 a sovereign country’s election. The rows risk derailing the campaign of the right, led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, with just hours of campaigning left ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Meloni has been trying to reassure everyone that she is a safe pair of hands and expressed full alignment with the U.S. and NATO since the invasion of Ukraine, but she has been undermined by her allies in the right-wing alliance. Berlusconi’s comments about Putin followed remarks from Salvini, 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 population, by his party, by his ministers to invent this special operation.” The plan, he said, was for Russian troops to enter “in a week to replace Zelenskyy’s government with a government of decent people.”
The comments prompted a strong reaction from Berlusconi’s adversaries. Enrico Letta, leader of the leftist Democrats, said: “If the right win on Sunday, the first one to celebrate will be Putin.”
Carlo Calenda, leader of the centrist Azione party, said Berlusconi spoke “like one of Putin’s generals” and “has taken us out of any European and Atlantic alliance.”
Serhii Nykyforov, Zelensky’s spokesperson, marveled at Berlusconi’s trust in Putin. He told La Repubblica: “The president of Russia has been in power for more than 20 years … He 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 a decent person and who is not?”
Meanwhile, von der Leyen indicated during a conference at Princeton University that she remains skeptical about the ability of a right-wing government to remain on good terms with Europe, when she warned that the EU has “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 were deemed to be violating the bloc’s democratic standards.
Salvini tweeted: “What is this, a threat? This is shameful arrogance,” and asked von der Leyen to “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people.” Later he said: “If anyone 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 “this is institutional bullying.”
League senator Stefano Candiani said von der Leyen’s words were “concerning and above all dangerous. A real and actual interference from abroad to condition the Italian vote.”