Meloni's popularity put to test in Lombardy, Lazio regional votes
Candidates backed by Meloni's hard-right coalition are expected to triumph in elections to choose a new president and assembly members for Lombardy and Lazio.
Italy's two most populous regions vote on Sunday and Monday in elections seen as a test of the popularity of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's three-month-old government.
Candidates backed by Meloni's hard-right coalition are expected to triumph in elections to choose a new president and assembly members for Lombardy, Italy's northern economic powerhouse, and Lazio, which includes the capital Rome.
Jean-Pierre Darnis, a political expert at Nice and Rome's Luiss universities, said local issues will play a part in the elections but noted that "these elections represent a test for the government in the sense of how they are interpreted politically."
"The right seems ahead, and that will be presented by Giorgia Meloni as a continuation of the momentum of September," when her far-right Brothers of Italy party came top in national elections, Darnis told AFP.
However, the vote will be closely watched for signs of tensions between Meloni and her coalition partners -- Matteo Salvini's far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia.
The rise of the Brothers of Italy has been largely at the expense of its right-wing allies, and while the League candidate is expected to be re-elected president of Lombardy with the coalition's support, Meloni's party is expected to secure the most votes.
Her party made history by securing 26% in September's legislative elections, and in October Meloni became Italy's first female Prime Minister at the helm of the most right-wing government in Rome since World War II.
After a campaign dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, Meloni cracked down on migrant rescue charities operating in the central Mediterranean but followed a conventional line on international affairs. Despite her euro-skepticism and often strident nationalism, she has maintained ties with Paris and Berlin, while strongly backing the EU's support for Ukraine.
Her coalition has also benefited from a shattered opposition nationwide, with the center-left Democratic Party (PD) in search of a leader.
Brothers of Italy is currently polling at more than 29%, according to a YouTrend survey published on February 2, compared to 8.7% for the League and 7% for Forza Italia.
In Lombardy, President Attilio Fontana, a member of Salvini's League and the candidate of Meloni's coalition, is expected to be re-elected for another five-year term.
A January poll found Meloni's party well ahead in the region, at around 25%, compared to barely 13% for the League.
Further south in Lazio, right-wing candidate Francesco Rocca is expected to win in the face of a divided opposition, replacing the Democratic Party's Nicola Zingaretti, who resigned after being elected to parliament last year.
Read more: EU Press freedom: Italy's PM takes anti-Mafia journalist to trial