Rome (AFP) - Matteo Salvini's anti-migrant League party won the most votes in Sunday's European elections in Italy, marking a historic success for the far-right, exit polls showed.
"A new Europe is born. I am proud that the League is participating in this new European renaissance," Salvini said in Milan after exit polls predicted his party had won 27-31 percent of votes.
The result will strengthen Interior Minister Salvini's grip on government, after coalition partner the Five Star Movement (M5S) was beaten by a resurgent centre-left Democratic Party (PD) which came second with 21-25 percent.
"I ask for an acceleration on the government programme," Salvini said, brandishing Roman Catholic rosary beads. "At the national level nothing changes."
Salvini earlier tweeted a photo of himself grinning and holding a sign saying "top party in Italy" while standing in front of a bookshelf featuring, among other things, a religious icon and a Make America Great Again baseball cap.
Luigi Di Maio's anti-establishment M5S garnered 18.5-22.5 percent of votes, while tycoon and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia scored 8-12 percent.
The leader of the PD party which came second, Nicola Zingaretti, said after the exit polls were announced that "the challenge is to build an alternative to Matteo Salvini."
The result for the League was not as high as some had predicted but confirmed the party's stellar rise since forming a government in June last year.
The party won just six percent of votes in the last European elections in 2014.
- Snap elections? -
Some analysts predicted that Salvini would want to call snap elections if the League obtained a high score, although he denied this during campaigning.
"As far as I'm concerned, if the League wins nothing changes in Italy, everything will change in Europe, starting from tomorrow," he said earlier Sunday.
The March 2018 general election in the eurozone's third largest economy saw the League take home just 17 percent of the vote, while the M5S -- which set itself up as the honest, environmentally-friendly alternative to a corrupt old political guard -- pocketed over 32 percent.
Analysts said a strong League result -- over 30 percent -- could see Salvini tempted to ditch the M5S for the far-right Brothers of Italy (which won five-seven percent on Sunday), or a fresh alliance with the party's historic partner, the centre-right Forza Italia.
Berlusconi, 82, has repeatedly called on Salvini to dump his partner M5S and try to form a government with Forza Italia.
Salvini has presented himself as the leader of far-right "sovereignists" in Europe, and last weekend held a rally in Milan in his northern Italian heartland to bring 12 populist parties together, including France's Marie Le Pen and her National Rally (RN).
Despite their shared dislike of immigration, multiculturalism, the left and the EU, Europe's populists remain divided on many other key issues, including budgetary discipline, migrant distribution and relations with Moscow.
The leader of what used to be the separatist Northern League had campaigned hard around the country for the European elections, prompting opponents to accuse him of neglecting his ministerial duties.