Italian voters have rewarded a Eurosceptic party with neo-fascist roots, propelling the country towards what is likely to be its first far-right-led government since the Second World War, according to near-final election results.
The country’s lurch to the right immediately shifted Europe’s geopolitical balance, placing Giorgia Meloni’s Eurosceptic Brothers of Italy party in position to lead one of the founding members of the European Union, as well as its third-largest economy.
Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed Ms Meloni’s victory and her party’s meteoric rise as sending a historic message to Brussels.
In a victory speech, Ms Meloni struck a moderate tone, saying from her party’s headquarters in Rome: “If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone, we will do it for all Italians and we will do it with the aim of uniting the people (of this country).
“Italy chose us. We will not betray (the country) as we never have.”
The formation of a ruling coalition, with the help of Ms Meloni’s right-wing and centre-right allies, could take weeks. If 45-year-old Ms Meloni succeeds, she would be the first woman to hold the country’s premiership.
The mandate to try to form a government is given by Italy’s president after consultations with party leaders.
Near-final results showed the centre-right coalition netting some 44% of the parliamentary vote, with Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy taking 26%.
Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League of Matteo Salvini winning nearly 9% and the more moderate Forza Italia of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around 8%.
The centre-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26%, while the 5-Star Movement – which took the biggest single vote in 2018 parliamentary elections – saw its share of the vote halved to some 15% this time around.
Turnout was at a historic low of 64%. Pollsters suggested voters stayed home partly in protest and also because they were disenchanted by the backroom deals that have created the three governments since the previous poll.
Meanwhile, former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, whose government collapsed two months ago, stays on in a caretaker role.
Differences among Ms Meloni’s potential coalition partners could loom.
She has solidly backed the supplying of Ukraine with arms to defend itself against Russia’s invasion. In contrast, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, who before the war was a staunch admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has voiced concern that Western sanctions could end up hurting Italy’s economic interests more than punishing Russia’s.
Former premier Silvio Berlusconi, another long-time Putin admirer, has said that his inclusion in a centre-right bloc’s coalition would guarantee that Italy stays firmly anchored in the European Union and one of its most reliable members.
With Italy’s households and businesses struggling with staggeringly high energy bills as winter approaches, Ms Meloni has demurred from Mr Salvini’s push to swell already-debt-laden Italy by tens of billions of euros for energy relief.
What kind of government the eurozone’s third-largest economy might be getting was being closely watched in Europe, given Ms 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.
Mr Orban’s political director, Balazs Orban, was among the first to congratulate Ms Meloni. “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges,” he tweeted.
French politician Marine Le Pen’s party hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” for the EU.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Ms Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity”.
After opinion polls in the run-up to the vote indicated she would be headed to victory, Ms Meloni started moderating her message of “God, homeland and family” in an apparent attempt to reassure the European Union and other international partners, worried about Euroscepticism.
“This is the time for being responsible,” Ms Meloni said, appearing live on television and describing the situation for Italy and the European Union is “particularly complex”.
She promised more detailed comments later on Monday. In her campaign, she criticised European Union officials as being overly bureaucratic and vowing to protect Italy’s national interests if they clash with EU policies.
Ms 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. In the last election, in 2018, Ms Meloni’s party took 4.4%.
Italy has 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 had said.
Ms Meloni’s party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly after the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign alliance. Ms Meloni was buoyed by joining campaign forces with Mr Salvini and Mr Berlusconi.
The Democrats went into the vote at a steep disadvantage since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with the left-leaning populists of the 5-Star-Movement, the largest party in the just-ended legislature.
The election on Sunday came six months early after Mr Draghi’s pandemic unity government, which enjoyed wide citizen popularity, collapsed in late July after the parties of Mr Salvini, Mr Berlusconi and Giuseppe Conte withheld support in a confidence vote.
Ms Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in the opposition, refusing to join Mr Draghi’s unity government or the two previous coalitions led by Mr Conte.