Italy votes in EU election with Meloni poised as powerbroker

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Brussels, Belgium, June 9 (AFP/APP):Italy became the first heavyweight nation to cast votes for the EU's next parliament on Saturday, in a test of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni's strength at home -- and future influence in the bloc.
              Most of the European Union's 27 member countries, including powerhouses France and Germany, go to the polls on Sunday, the final day, with projected overall results due late that evening.
              The first polling stations have already opened in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia, the site of deadly rioting this month.
              The two-day ballot in Italy -- the EU's third-largest economy with 76 of 720 seats in the new parliament -- could have big consequences.
              Meloni cast her vote in her Rome constituency, under sweltering late spring temperatures, telling reporters that the EU contest "will shape the next five years".
              Polls suggest Meloni's Brothers of Italy party could win with 27 percent of the vote -- more than quadrupling its score from 2019 -- amid a broader surge of far-right groups across the bloc.
              Walter Esposito, a 78-year-old Roman, cast his vote for her party in protest at EU policies on the environment, complaining: "Europe has always tried to crush Italy and the Italian people."
              At the other end of the political spectrum, Carlotta Cinardi, an 18-year-old student, said she found no party that "100 percent represents my ideas" -- but voted green as the "most progressive towards young people."
              A victory could set up Meloni as a powerbroker in determining whether EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen gets the backing she needs, from both member states and parliament, for a second term.
              Meloni has been actively courted both by the centre-right von der Leyen -- and by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who wants to create a right-wing EU supergroup.
              But one European diplomat warned against overestimating her influence.
              "Meloni will have an influence on Italian interests, at the commission, in parliament," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named. "She will play the game. But does that make her a kingmaker? No."
              For the time being, Meloni is keeping her cards close to her chest -- though she makes clear she wants to relegate the EU's left-wing parties to the opposition.