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Giogia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy political party, appeared on track to win Italy’s election Sunday, according to exit polls.
Rai state broadcaster said 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, compared to the closest contender, the center-left alliance of former Democratic Party Premier Enrico Letta, which apparently garnered less than a third of the vote. Rai said the exit poll had a margin of error of 3.5%.
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 11 p.m., with projections based on partial results coming early Monday.
“Today you can help write history,” Meloni tweeted Sunday.
Should she win, Meloni 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.
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.
Assembling a viable, ruling coalition in Italy could take weeks, however. 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.
Meloni’s meteoric rise in Italy comes at a critical time, as Italian businesses and households are struggling to pay soaring gas and electricity bills, a repercussion of European energy policies and the war in Ukraine. In some cases, energy costs 10 times higher than last year’s.
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 collapsed in late July.
Opinion polls found that 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, 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.
Meloni has, however, distanced herself from Salvini and Berlusconi with unflagging support for Ukraine, including sending weapons so Kyiv could defend itself against Russia.
Before Russia’s invasion, Salvini and Berlusconi had gushed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. 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.
Draghi remains as caretaker until a new government is sworn in.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.