Italy warns of 'influence campaigns' ahead of key elections

With elections around the corner, Italy's government has issued a report warning of possible election-meddling. Malicious actors could introduce "destabilizing elements" to sow division in society.

The Italian government on Tuesday published its annual security report, warning that opinion-shaping campaigns are a major threat to the country's democracy, with less than two weeks until the general elections.

With several key votes over the past year, European authorities have warned that state actors may attempt to influence elections after US intelligence services accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential vote.

The report warned that:

  • Stolen information acquired through cyberattacks could be distributed online to sway opinion.
  • Malicious actors could "exploit" liberal democracies through the "use of sophisticated techniques and considerable financial resources."
  • The campaigns seek to introduce "destabilizing elements" into society by exacerbating political, economic and social divisions online.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who presented the report, said the country's intelligence services have shown greater risks from hybrid threats

What do the polls say?

Italy's general election is set to take place on March 4. A right-of-center alliance led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Forward Italy) party is set to win with 38.6 percent of the vote, according to the latest poll conducted by Euromedia Research.

The ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD) is expected to garner 22.1 percent of the vote, down from the 25.4 percent it managed to secure in the 2013 elections.

Although the euroskeptic Five Star Movement (M5S) is expected to gain the most votes, new electoral regulations have undermined their hopes of leading the next government. M5S is expected to gain 26.8 percent, the highest of any individual party, according to the latest polls.

Set to become the EU's third-largest economy after Brexit, analysts are worried that the elections will result in a hung parliament at a time when Italy needs a strong government to energize its sluggish economy and help lead bloc-wide reforms.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is considered a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His party could try to relieve EU sanctions if they come into power

How Russia plays into the elections: Signed off in 2014 by a PD-led government, EU sanctions against Russia have cost the Italian economy €4 billion ($4.9 billion), according to a report by business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

Read more: Europe doesn't want 'permanent obstacle to dealing with Russia,' says top US negotiator

At time when Italy's economy continues to drag while eurozone growth is at its fastest pace in 10 years, many Italians would like to see them dropped. That could be a major possibility under a right-of-center government led by Kremlin ally Berlusconi's Forza Italia.

Which EU countries have warned of election-meddling: Authorities in nearly all EU countries that held votes since the US presidential election in 2016 have warned of possible election-meddling operations, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the Czech Republic.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Media mogul

Born in Milan in 1936, Berlusconi started out his career as a singer on cruise ships in the 1950s before rising to become a major player in Italy's media landscape. He created the first (and only) Italian TV commerical empire, and created media groups with huge portfolios like Fininvest. He also owned the highly successful soccer team AC Milan from 1986 to 2016.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Forza Italia

Before founding his center-right Forza Italia ("Let's go Italy") party in 1993, Berlusconi enjoyed the friendship of Prime Minister Benito Craxi. After Craxi was forced out of politics by a corruption scandal, Berlusconi presented himself as a brash but honest, self-made man, a moderate and supporter of the free market. Forza Italia remains largely a party ideologically aligned around its leader.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Populist prime minister

Berlusconi would come to dominate Italian politics for the next two and a half decades. First elected to the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, in 1994, Berlusconi had three stints as prime minister between that year and 2011. He was repeatedly accused of corruption and authoritarianism during his tenure.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Powerful friends

Berlusconi formed strong friendships with world leaders of a similar ilk, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had highly antagonistic relationships with leaders who criticized him, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He once caused a stir in the European Parliament in 2008 by telling then-EU lawmaker Martin Schulz he could play a Nazi in one of his upcoming films.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Bunga Bunga

After being hit with claims of paying bribes, abuse of office, tax fraud and defamation, in 2011 Berlusconi was forced to resign. He was accused of organizing hedonistic celebrations that involved sex with minors, called "bunga bunga" parties. At the center of the scandal was exotic dancer Karima El Mahroug. Berlusconi was first found guilty, but his conviction was overtuned on appeal in 2014.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Convicted

After avoiding major legal repercussions for years, Berlusconi was finally convicted of tax fraud in 2013 and banned from holding public office until 2019. Because he was over the age of 70 at the time of his conviction, he was sentenced to carry out community service in lieu of jail time. He works about four hours a week at an elderly care facility helping dementia patients.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Resurgent right

Although he cannot hold office, Berlusconi has been amassing a right-wing bloc that is currently leading the polls ahead of Italy's general election on March 4. Forza Italia has been bolstered by the support of the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) and its leader Matteo Salvini (right). The Lega promotes euroskeptic and anti-immigrant policies.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

America's Berlusconi

Berlusconi welcomes comparisons to US President Donald Trump in terms of populism, lifestyle, attitude and backgrounds. Shortly after Trump's victory, Berlusconi commended his focus on the "weak citizens harassed by the state, taxes, bureaucracy, uncontrolled immigration, unemployment and the danger of terrorism." Despite this, Berlusconi is keen to point out that he made his money on his own.

Silvio Berlusconi: Italy's power politician is back

Forza Silvio

Despite endless legal troubles and little legislative or economic sucess, Berlusconi has vowed not to step away from politics. He has vowed to remain the custodial leader of Forza Italia during his public office ban, and to contest another election as soon as he is able.

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