Your time is up, Italy's hard-right leader tells EU center parties as she votes in European election

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni joined voters in Italy and a half dozen European Union nations in casting a ballot during the penultimate day of European Union parliamentary elections on Saturday

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ROME (AP) — Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni joined voters in Italy and a half dozen European Union nations in casting a ballot during the penultimate day of European Union parliamentary elections on Saturday. The bloc’s premier hard-right politician threw down the gauntlet to the traditional center parties, telling them their time to run the EU as they liked was up.

Populist and far-right parties were looking to make gains across the 27-member bloc in the wake of the strong showing by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands on Thursday.

And Meloni, the leading hard-right politician governing a key founding nation of the bloc, left no doubt about what was at stake when she went to vote in her suburban neighborhood in Rome on Saturday afternoon.

"This vote will decide our next five years,” she said, echoing her campaign theme that time had come to pull back powers to national capitals and curtail the reach of the EU institutions that have been dominated by Christian Democrat, Socialist and pro-business Liberal politicians.

As the third most populous nation in the bloc, Italy wields considerable influence. It will send 76 legislators to the 720-seat parliament, which has extended its powers in recent years. Only Germany and France, which vote on Sunday, have more seats.

At the same time, the election campaign was tainted by violence.

In Slovakia, the election was overshadowed by an attempt to assassinate populist Prime Minister Robert Fico on May 15, sending shockwaves through the nation of 5.4 million and reverberating throughout Europe. Analysts say the attack could boost the chances of the premier's leftist Smer (Direction) party, the senior partner in the governing coalition, to win the vote.

And in Denmark it was Prime Minister Mette Fredriksen who called off her last day of campaigning across the country after suffering whiplash when she was assaulted in Copenhagen on Friday, the latest in a series of incidents over the past weeks, in which the assassination attempt on Fico stood out.

Fico, who took office last fall after campaigning on a pro-Russian and anti-American platform, has been recovering from multiple wounds after being shot in the abdomen as he greeted supporters in the town of Handlova.

He recovered in time to address the nation in a prerecorded video, his first public statement since the attack, just hours before the start of the preelection silence period on Wednesday. He attacked the European Union, suggesting he was a victim because of his views that differ sharply from the EU's mainstream.

Fico strongly opposes support for Ukraine in its war against Russia's full-scale invasion. He ended Slovakia's military aid for Ukraine after his coalition government was sworn in on Oct. 25. He also opposes EU sanctions on Russia and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.

Fico claimed mainstream media, non-governmental organizations and the liberal opposition were also to blame for the assassination attempt, an allegation repeated by politicians in his governing coalition.

Soňa Szomolányi, a political science professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, said Fico’s message "only confirms that the ruling coalition has been using the assassination (attempt) expediently and apparently effectively,” she said.

The whole EU campaign has been cast in the light of the center and left forces seeking to hold off a surge of the far right on Sunday and in a fight between those who seek closer EU unity with greater powers against those like Fico, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Meloni who seek to swing the pendulum back to the member states themselves.

EU Commision President Ursula von der Leyen, who hopes to use Sunday's results as a launchpad for a second term at the head of the EU, has especially been stressing the respect for the rule of law as a quintessential requirement for those seeking power.

Meloni is expected to be the big winner in Italy, reflecting her far-right Brothers of Italy’s growth, mostly at the expense of her coalition partners, the populist, anti-migrant League and the center-right Forza Italia. The result could expand Meloni’s influence in the EU, as von der Leyen has not ruled out a coalition with her group.

Capitalizing on her popularity, Meloni is running as the preferential candidate, even though she has no intention of taking a European parliamentary seat.

Voters in Latvia, Malta, and the Czech Republic were also casting ballots Saturday. Final results will not be released until Sunday night, once every country has voted. The main voting day is Sunday, with citizens in 20 European countries, including Germany, France and Poland, casting their ballots for the 720-seat European Parliament.

Seats are allocated based on population, ranging from six in Malta or Luxembourg to 96 in Germany. In Malta, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, von der Leyen's ally in the Christian Democrat center-right European People's Party, proudly proclaimed “Duty done” and urged EU citizens to go vote, “or others will decide for you.” In 2019, barely half the eligible votes went out to the polling booths while predictions have shown turnout could exceed 70% this year.

In Slovakia, Fico’s Smer party is in a close race against the main opposition Progressive Slovakia, a pro-Western liberal party.

Fico's government has made efforts to overhaul public broadcasting — a move critics said would give the government full control of public television and radio.

That, along with his plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor, has led opponents to worry that he would lead Slovakia down a more autocratic path, following the direction of neighboring Hungary under populist Orbán.

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Associated Press writers Karel Janicel reported from Prague and Raf Casert from Brussels. Colleen Barry from Milan contributed reporting.

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