Italians voted yesterday on whether to usher in the country’s first government led by the far-right since World War II, bringing eurosceptic populists to the heart of Europe.
The Brothers of Italy party, headed by one-time Mussolini supporter Giorgia Meloni, has led opinion polls and looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties.
Meloni, 45, who has campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, hopes to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Even before they had opened at 0500 GMT, voters began queueing at polling stations, AFP correspondents saw.
“I’m playing to win, not just to take part,” Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League, told reporters as he went to cast his ballot.
“I can’t wait to come back from tomorrow as part of the government of this extraordinary country,” he added.
President Sergio Mattarella and Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, also voted early Sunday. Polls close at 2100 GMT.
Many voters are expected to pick Meloni, “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP.
Brussels and the markets are watching closely, amid concern that Italy — a founding member of the European Union — may be the latest to veer hard right, less than two weeks after the far right outperformed in elections in Sweden.
If she wins, Meloni will face challenges from rampant inflation to an energy crisis as winter approaches, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, rebounded after the pandemic but is saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Meloni has dedicated her campaign to trying to prove she is ready despite her party never before being in power.
Brothers of Italy, which has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini, pocketed just four percent of the vote during the last elections in 2018.
Meloni has moderated her views over the years, notably abandoning her calls for Italy to leave the EU’s single currency.
However, she insists her country must stand up for its national interests, backing Hungary in its rule of law battles with Brussels.
Her coalition wants to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis aggravated by the Ukraine war.
The last opinion polls two weeks before election day suggested one in four voters backed Meloni.
However, around 20% of voters remain undecided, and there are signs she may end up with a smaller majority in parliament than expected.
In particular, support appears to be growing for the populist Five Star Movement in the poor south.
The next government is unlikely to take office before the second half of October, and despite pledges from Meloni and Salvini to serve five years, history suggests they may struggle.