Exit polls suggest victory for far-right Giorgia Meloni in Italy elections

Giorgia 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. Credit: AP

An exit poll suggests far-right party leader Giorgia Meloni is set to become Italy's first female prime minister, as part of a coalition government. State broadcaster Rai said Ms Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, in alliance with two right-wing parties appeared headed to take as much as 45% of the vote in both chambers of Parliament.

The closest contender, the centre-left alliance of former Democratic Party Premier Enrico Letta, apparently garneredas much as 29.5%.

Rai said the exit poll had a margin of error of 3.5%. The exit polls appear to put Ms Meloni, 45, in position to become Italy’s first far-right premier since the end of World War 2 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. 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.

ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports from Rome, where exit polls suggest far-right party leader Giorgia Meloni is on course to become Italy's first female prime minister

In a victory speech Ms Meloni struck a moderate tone after projections based on votes counted from some two-thirds of polling stations showed her Brothers of Italy party ahead of other contenders in Sunday's balloting.

“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),” she said at her party’s Rome headquarters.

“Italy chose us,” she said. “We will not betray (the country) as we never have.”

Italians voted Sunday in an election that could move the country’s politics sharply toward the right during a critical time for Europe, with the war in Ukraine fueling skyrocketing energy bills and testing the West's resolve to stand united against Russian aggression. Four hours before polls' closing time, turnout was running 7% lower than at the same time in 2018, which had a record-setting low turnout of 73%. The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after polling stations close at 11pm with projections based on partial results coming early Monday. The publication of opinion polls is banned in the two weeks leading up to the election.

Polls before then indicated that far-right leader Ms Meloni and her party, which has neo-fascist roots, was the most popular. If that sentiment holds, Ms Meloni would be positioned to form the country's first far-right-led government since the end of World War II. If Giorgia Meloni becomes premier, she will be the first woman in Italy to hold that office. “Today you can help write history,” Ms Meloni tweeted Sunday. Giorgia Meloni's party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Running close behind in final opinion polls was former Premier Enrico Letta and his centre-left Democratic Party. Assembling a viable, ruling coalition in Italy could take weeks, however.

ITV News Europe Editor James Mates has been speaking to voters in Italy

Ms Meloni joined forces in an election alliance with another right-wing leader, Matteo Salvini, who heads the anti-migrant League party, as well as with Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time premier who heads the Forza Italia party he created three decades ago. Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign coalitions, meaning the Democrats are disadvantaged since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists. Nearly 51 million Italians were eligible to vote Sunday. Despite Europe’s many crises, many voters told pollsters that they feel alienated from politics. Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election - each led by someone who hadn’t run for office. "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 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. The election on Sunday was being held six months early after Premier Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government collapsed in late July. Opinion polls found that Mr Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, was hugely popular. But the three populist parties in his coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure. Their leaders, Matteo Salvini, Silvio Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing Parliament, saw Giorgia Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs were slipping.

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Ms Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in the opposition, refusing to join Mr Draghi’s unity government or Mr Conte’s two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote. She further distanced herself from Mr Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi with unflagging support for Ukraine, including sending weapons so Kyiv could defend itself against Russia. Her nationalist party champions sovereignty. Before Russia’s invasion, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi had gushed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr Salvini, drawing his voter support heavily from business owners, has expressed fears that Italy's economy could be too heavily hit by repercussions from Western sanctions against Russia. Italian businesses and households are struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, which in some cases are 10 times higher than last year's. Mr Draghi remains as caretaker until a new government is sworn in.