ROME (AP) – The electoral alliance of far-right leader Giorgia Meloni appeared to have a wide lead in the national vote in Italy, an exit poll on state television showed on Sunday night after a record-low turnout.
State broadcaster Rai said that Italy’s Melonis brothers, in alliance with two right-wing parties, appear to be on course to capture 45% of the vote in both chambers of parliament. The strongest contender appeared to be the center-left coalition of former Democratic Party prime minister Enrico Letta, which gained as much as 29.5% according to the exit poll. Rai said the poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Meloni, 45, would be well placed to become Italy’s first far-right prime minister since the end of World War II and the country’s first woman to hold the post. Her party, with neo-fascist roots, would need to form a coalition with its key allies, Anti-Migrant League leader Matteo Salvini, and conservative former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to secure 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 is being tested by rising energy costs, an impact of the war in Ukraine and the West’s determination to stand united against Russian aggression is provided.
The same exit poll showed that Meloni’s party appeared to have won by 22-26% of the vote, while Letta’s centre-left Democrats were heading for 17-21%.
The counting of the paper ballots began immediately after the polling stations closed and is expected to continue until Monday morning.
It could take weeks for Italy to assemble and swear in a new coalition government.
More than a third of the 50.9 million eligible voters boycotted the election. The final voter turnout was 64%, according to the Interior Ministry. That’s far below the previous record for a low turnout of 73% in the last 2018 election.
Meloni did not immediately comment after the exit poll was announced on state-run RAI television. But before that, she tweeted to Italian voters: “Today you can help make history.”
Meloni’s party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party founded shortly after the war by nostalgics of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s complex electoral law rewards electoral alliance. Meloni was buoyed ahead of the vote by joining forces with two longtime admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin – Salvini and Berlusconi. She herself is a staunch supporter of supplying arms to Ukraine to defend against Russian attacks.
The Democrats went into the vote at a distinct disadvantage, failing to forge a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.
Italy had had three coalition governments since the last election – each led by someone who had not run for office, and that appeared to have alienated many voters, pollsters said.
“I hope we will see honest people and that is very difficult these days,” Adriana Gherdo said at a polling station in Rome.
Given Meloni’s criticism of the “Brussels bureaucrats” and their links to other right-wing leaders, Europe has been watching closely for what kind of government the eurozone’s third largest economy could get. She recently defended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of dollars in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU funds.
Election Sunday came six months earlier after Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government, which was popular with citizens, collapsed in late July.
But the three populist parties in his coalition boycotted a confidence vote linked to an energy relief measure. Its leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and the leader of the 5 Star Movement, Giuseppe Conte, a former prime minister whose party is the largest in the outgoing parliament, saw Meloni’s popularity rise while hers waned.
Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in opposition and refused to join Draghi’s unity government or the two Conte 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.
Draghi remains caretaker until a new government is sworn in.
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