ROME — Italy was all but assured of having its first right-wing government since the fall of Mussolini on Sunday after exit polls showed the upstart, far-right Brothers of Italy had become the country’s largest political party with nearly a quarter of the overall vote, outpacing more than a dozen other parties.
That sets the table for Giorgia Meloni, 45, a former fascist activist who has sent shivers down the spines of more traditional leaders in the European Union. If she becomes prime minister, as many predict, Ms. Meloni will be the first woman to hold that post in Italy and instantly the most significant far-right figure in a major European Union and NATO country.
Next up: Italy’s head of state, Sergio Mattarella, will meet with leaders of the largest parties in the coming days and ask one leader, probably Ms. Meloni, to try to cobble together a majority coalition. Exit polls gave the three main right-wing parties about 40% of the vote. The center-left alliance of former Democratic Party Prime Minister Enrico Letta received just under a third of the vote, according to the state broadcaster Rai.
Ms. Meloni’s party appeared to grab the largest single share of the vote with about 25%, the Rai exit poll showed, putting her in the driver’s seat in the jockeying for power to come.
With Italy’s electoral laws providing extra seats to the party with the most votes, there will be a right-of-center majority if the parties work together as they have vowed to do.
The counting of the paper ballots began immediately after polls closed and was expected to last well into Monday morning, The Associated Press reported. It could be weeks before a coalition government can be created and sworn in.
More than one-third of the 50.9 million eligible voters boycotted the balloting, election officials said. The final turnout was 64%, according to the Interior Ministry, well below the 73% who turned out to vote in 2018.
Regardless of what happens, the strong result for the Brothers of Italy will create a delicate dilemma for European powers to keep Italy — the third-largest economy in the European Union — from drifting toward fellow conservative EU member states like Hungary and Poland. The dilemma will be felt in Washington and around the world, whether it’s on NATO commitments, the West’s united stance against Russia in Ukraine, immigration and social policy, or the source of deeper European integration.
Ms. Meloni has largely sided with fellow EU countries in supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. She has also called for a naval blockade to halt immigration from Africa and said Italy should take a more aggressive stance to defend its rights within the 27-nation European Union. Ms. Meloni’s party logo includes the tri-colored Fascist flame, and she uses the Mussolini-era slogan “God, homeland and family.”
She appears to have succeeded where fellow far-right figures, including France’s Marine Le Pen, have fallen short by working to distance herself from her image as a simple far-right firebrand. “We will show that there is nobody in the world who needs to be afraid of us,” she told a rally last week.
Analysts say Ms. Meloni skillfully played up her working-class roots and her party’s stance outside the traditional political establishment. The Brothers of Italy’s popularity rose as it stayed on the sidelines and refused to join any of the past three unpopular coalition governments.
Anxiety in Europe
The coming changes in Rome haven’t quelled the anxiety in much of the rest of Europe. The shift is likely to be all the more jarring because the new right-wing coalition will replace a centrist government headed by Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank who was widely admired in Brussels and the major Western European capitals.
The German magazine Stern called Ms. Meloni “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” and The Guardian, the voice of liberal Britain, said she was “a danger to Italy and the rest of Europe.” In France, Le Monde called her a “figurehead of the radical right.”
Although European leaders were apprehensive about the rise of Ms. Meloni, an unmarried mother of one, Italians were mixed. Her supporters said the Rome native, who often speaks in the rough dialect of the capital, and her allies will help “spark change” and “send the old parties to hell.”
Still, even those who did not support her were philosophical about the vote.
“I didn’t vote for them, but I think Brothers of Italy will win and I think the Italians will struggle but survive,” said Anna Di Lorenzo, a 51-year-old shop owner who voted in the blue-collar Rome neighborhood of Testaccio. “We’ve seen this before.”
Vittorio Mazzi, a 35-year-old bus driver who voted in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, said he resented warnings against Ms. Meloni from non-Italian leaders and pundits in Europe.
“I recognize her faults, but if people aren’t Italian, they should just recognize our right to vote as we please,” he said.
Though right-wing parties have been part of Italian governments in the past, this would be the first time such a clear conservative coalition will hold power on its own since Fascist strongman Benito Mussolini was overthrown in 1943. Ms. Meloni, whose party is founded on the ashes of Mr. Mussolini’s Fascists, is likely to head the 74th Italian government in the 79 since Mr. Mussolini’s fall.
Ms. Meloni and likely coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old former prime minister, stumbled with a series of gaffes early in the campaign, called after Mr. Draghi’s centrist government imploded. Mr. Berlusconi is a billionaire media tycoon and a four-time prime minister whose Forza Italia party is predicted to be a junior member in any right-of-center coalition.
On Sept. 19, the Brothers of Italy suspended Calogero Pisano, one of the party’s candidates for parliament in Sicily, after it was revealed that he used words of praise for Adolf Hitler, calling him a “great statesman,” and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, saying “I’m with him.”
On Friday, Mr. Berlusconi declared that Mr. Putin was forced to invade Ukraine to replace the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy with “decent people” far removed from the European Union consensus stance on the Ukraine conflict. Mr. Berlusconi’s remark sparked a round of chuckling in EU capitals and in Brussels, where top officials declined to address the comment.
Also on Friday, Ms. Meloni said she would withdraw from China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative if elected as premier. Since Italy joined the program in 2018, it has generated billions of dollars in investments but sparked fears that it would take Italy closer to becoming a kind of Chinese economic vassal state. A government headed by a rival to Ms. Meloni, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, agreed to that deal with Meloni ally Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League party as a senior partner.
Mr. Draghi remains as a caretaker until a new government is sworn in.