Giorgia Meloni has claimed victory in Italy’s elections and promised to govern for all Italians, after exit polls gave her rightwing coalition a clear majority, putting her on course to create the most rightwing government since the end of the second world war.
With full results due on Monday, the Brothers of Italy leader is set to become Italy’s first female prime minister – and a model for nationalist parties across Europe as she heads one of the EU’s six original member states.
The poll, for Italian broadcaster Rai, gave the rightwing coalition 41%-45% against 25.5%-29.5% for the leftwing bloc. The populist Five Star Movement was on 13.5%-17.5%.
Meloni’s party, which has neofascist origins, is also set to scoop by far the biggest share of the votes within the coalition, which includes the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia, headed by Silvio Berlusconi.
Early on Monday morning, projections based on well over half the votes counted put the Brothers of Italy on almost 26%, up from just 4% in the last national election in 2018, as voters opted for a largely untried figure to sort out the nation’s many problems. By contrast, Meloni’s main ally suffered a disastrous night, with Salvini’s League picking up around 9% of the vote, down from more than 17% four years ago.
The other major conservative party, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, also scored around 8%, leaving Brothers of Italy the dominant partner.
On Monday Meloni said Italian voters had given a clear mandate to the right to form the next government and called for unity to help confront the country’s many problems.
“This is a night of pride for Brothers of Italy, but it is a starting point, not a finish line,” she said to a crowd of supporters.
“If we are called upon to govern this nation, we will do so for all Italians, with the aim of uniting the people, of exalting what unites them rather than what divides them,” Meloni told reporters. “We will not betray your trust.”
“This is the time for being responsible,” she said, appearing on live on television and describing the situation for Italy and the European Union is “particularly complex”.
Italy’s main centre-left group, the Democratic party (PD), conceded defeat.
“This is a sad evening for the country,” Debora Serracchiani, a senior PD lawmaker, told reporters in the party’s first official comment on the result. “(The right) has the majority in parliament, but not in the country.”
As provisional results came in, Italian daily La Stampa headlined its front page “Italy moves to the right”..
If the exit polls are correct, the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, is expected to hand Meloni a mandate to form a government that, if everything goes smoothly, could be in place by the end of October.
Marco Marsilio, Brothers of Italy’s president of the central Abruzzo region, said he had been waiting for this moment all his life. “Twenty or 30 years ago this sounded like madness, let’s hope God forgives us for this madness,” he told Reuters.
Meloni, from Rome, began her political career as a youth activist in the neofascist Italian Social Movement but rejects the idea that her politics are fascist, arguing that the Italian right consigned fascism to history decades ago.
The coalition’s expected victory, however, raises questions about the country’s alliances in Europe as the continent enters a winter likely to be dominated by high energy prices and its response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Meloni has sought to send reassuring messages, but the prospect of her as prime minister is unlikely to be welcomed in Paris or Berlin.
Germany’s governing Social Democratic party warned last week that her win would be bad for European cooperation. Lars Klingbeil, the chairman of chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD, said Meloni had aligned herself with “anti-democratic” figures such as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
Earlier this month, Meloni’s MEPs voted against a resolution that condemned Hungary as “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy”. One of her first messages of congratulations on Sunday night was from Orbán’s political director, Balázs Orbán, who said: “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.”
Meloni is also allied to Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and Spain’s far-right Vox party. She travelled in the summer to a Vox rally in Marbella, where she expressed her hardline views on immigration and homosexuality.
The 45-year-old received an endorsement from Vox towards the end of her campaign, and in response said the two parties were linked by “mutual respect, friendship and loyalty” while hoping victory for Brothers of Italy would give Vox some thrust in Spain.
“Meloni has an ambition to represent a model not only for Italy, but for Europe – this is something new [for the right in Italy] compared with the past,” said Nadia Urbinati, a political theorist at New York’s Columbia University and the University of Bologna. “She has contacts with other conservative parties, who want a Europe with less civil rights … the model is there, and so is the project.”
Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University, said Meloni would win thanks to her ability to be ideological but pragmatic, something that has allowed her to pip the French far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, to the post of becoming western Europe’s model for nationalism.
However, she is unlikely to rock the boat, at least at the beginning, as she wants to secure continuing flows of cash under Italy’s €191.5bn (£166bn) EU Covid recovery plan, the largest in the EU. The coalition has said it is not seeking to renegotiate the plan, but would like to make changes.
“Ambiguity is the key to understanding Meloni,” Diletti said. “She’s really interested in compromising with the EU on economic politics. But if the EU pushes her too much on the Italian government, she can always revert back to her safe zone as being a populist rightwing leader. She will do what she needs to do to stay in power.”
Salvini’s potential return to the interior ministry will also dampen hopes for a breakthrough in the EU’s long-stalled attempt to reform its migration system by sharing asylum seekers across member states. Salvini, who has close ties with Le Pen, said he “can’t wait” to resume his policy of blocking migrant rescue ships from entering Italian ports.
On Ukraine, Meloni has condemned Russia’s invasion and supported sending weapons to the war-torn country, but it remains unclear whether her government will back the eighth round of EU sanctions being discussed in Brussels. Salvini has claimed the sanctions were bringing Italy to its knees, although he never blocked any EU measures against Russia when in Mario Draghi’s broad coalition government, which collapsed in July.
Turnout fell to a historic low of around 64%, about nine points lower than the last elections in 2018. There was a steady flow of voters to a booth in Esquilino, a multicultural district in Rome, on Sunday morning, but the mood was one of despondency.
“It feels as if we’re on a rudderless boat,” said Carlo Russo. “All we heard during the election campaign was an exchange of insults between the various parties rather than an exchange of ideas. And in moments of confusion such as this, people vote for the person who seems to be the strongest.”
Fausto Maccari, who runs a newspaper stand, said he would not vote for the right, but remained unsure. “The choices are poor,” added Maccari, in his 60s. “For example, I look at Berlusconi and he reminds me of a comic character. At his age, he shouldn’t be doing politics. It would be like me, at my age, trying to be a footballer like Maradona.”
Many Italians who support Meloni are doing so because she is yet to be tried and tested in government, and are attracted by her determination and loyalty to her ideals.
“She presents herself as a capable, but not arrogant, woman,” said Urbinati. “She gets things done and is dedicated, but without this masculine adrenaline that wants power at all costs.”