ROME (AP) — Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni’s electoral alliance appeared to hold a wide lead in Italy’s national vote, an exit poll on state television suggested Sunday evening following a record-low turnout.
Rai state broadcaster said Meloni’s Brothers of Italy in alliance with two right-wing parties appeared headed to take 45% of the vote in both chambers of Parliament. The closest contender appeared to be the center-left alliance of former Democratic Party Premier Enrico Letta, which the exit poll indicated garnered as much as 29.5%. Rai said the poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Meloni, 45, would be well-positioned to become Italy’s first far-right premier since the end of World War II and the first woman in the country to hold that office. Her party, with neo-fascist roots, would need to form a coalition with her main allies, anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and conservative former Premier Silvio Berlusconi to command a solid majority in Parliament.
Meloni’s meteoric rise in the European Union’s third-largest economy comes at a critical time, as much of the continent reels under soaring energy bills, a repercussion of the war in Ukraine, and the West's resolve to stand united against Russian aggression is being tested.
The same exit poll indicated Meloni's party appeared to have won from 22-26% of the votes, while Letta's center-left Democrats appeared headed to take from 17-21%.
Counting of the paper ballots was beginning immediately after polls closed, and expected to last well into Monday morning.
It could take weeks before Italy has a new coalition government assembled and sworn in.
More than one-third of the 50.9 million eligible voters boycotted the balloting. Final turnout was 64%, according to the Interior Ministry. That is far lower than the previous record for low turnout, 73% in 2018's last election.
Meloni didn't make any immediate comment after the exit poll was announced on RAI state TV. But earlier, she tweeted to Italian voters: “Today you can help write history.”
Meloni's party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italy's complex electoral law rewards campaign alliance. Meloni was buoyed going into the vote by joining campaign forces with two longtime admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin — Salvini and Berlusconi. She herself is a staunch advocate of supplying arms to Ukraine to defend itself against the attacks launched by Russia.
The Democrats went into the vote at a steep disadvantage since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.
Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office, and that appeared to have alienated many voters, pollsters had said.
"I hope we’ll see honest people, and this is very difficult nowadays,” Adriana Gherdo said at a polling station in Rome.
What kind of government the eurozone’s third-largest economy might be getting was being closely watched in Europe, given Meloni’s criticism of “Brussels bureaucrats” and her ties to other right-wing leaders. She recently defended Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.
The election Sunday was being held six months early after Premier Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government, which enjoyed wide citizen popularity, collapsed in late July.
But the three populist parties in his coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure. Their leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing Parliament, saw Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs were slipping.
Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in the opposition, refusing to join Draghi’s unity government or Conte’s two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote.
Italian businesses and households are struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, which in some cases are 10 times higher than last year's.
Draghi remains as caretaker until a new government is sworn in.