Italy voters shift sharply, reward Meloni’s far-right party

ROME (AP) — Italian voters shifted sharply, rewarding a party with neo-fascist roots and bolstering prospects the country could have its first far-right-led government since World War II, partial results Monday from the election for Parliament indicated.

In a victory speech, far-right Italian leader Giorgia Meloni struck a moderate tone after preliminary results in Sunday’s national election showed her Brothers of Italy party leading contenders.

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

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

As polls in the run up to Sunday’s vote showed her as the likely winner, Meloni has moderated her far-right message in an apparent attempt to reassure the European Union and other international partners.

“This is the time for being responsible,” Meloni said, appearing live on television and describing the situation for Italy and the European Union is “particularly complex.”

The formation of a ruling coalition with the help of right-wing allies of her Brothers of Italy party could take weeks. If Meloni, 45, succeeds, she would be the first woman to hold the country’s premiership. A mandate to try to form a government must be given by Italy’s president.

She thanked her main campaign allies and the likely partners essential to her forming a government: anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and conservative former Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Apparently headed for a drubbing in the voting was the euro-skeptic Salvini, who had hoped to become premier.

Projections based on votes counted from nearly two-thirds of the polling stations in Sunday’s balloting indicated Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party would win some 25.7% of the vote.

That compared to some 19.3% by the closest challenger, the center-left Democratic Party of former Premier Enrico Letta. Salvini’s League was projected to win 8.6% of the ballots, roughly half of what he garnered in the last 2018 election.

The projections on Italian state TV had a margin of error range of 2-5 percentage points.

Meloni’s strong showing heartened her allies in Europe who are intent on shifting the European Union’s politics sharply to the right.

Fellow Euroskeptic politicians were among the first to celebrate. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, congratulated Meloni in a tweet. French politician Marine Le Pen’s party also hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” to the EU.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, celebrated Meloni’s lead, tweeting that “millions of Europeans are placing their hopes in Italy.” She “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”

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, Meloni’s party took 4.4%.

Tabulating paper ballots was expected to last well into Monday morning.

More than one-third of the 50.9 million eligible voters deserted the balloting. Final turnout was 64%, according to the Interior Ministry. That is far lower than the previous record for low turnout, 73% in 2018′s last election.

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. Meloni was buoyed going into the vote by joining campaign forces with two longtime admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin — Salvini and Berlusconi. She herself is a staunch advocate of supplying arms to Ukraine to defend itself against the attacks launched by Russia.

The Democrats went into the vote at a steep disadvantage since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.

Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office, and that appeared to have alienated many voters, pollsters had said.

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, which enjoyed wide citizen popularity, collapsed in late July.

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.

Italian businesses and households are struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, which in some cases are 10 times higher than last year’s.

Draghi remains as caretaker until a new government is sworn in.