A party with neo-fascist roots, the Brothers of Italy, has won the most votes in Italy’s national elections and is set to form the country’s most right-wing government since that of dictator Benito Mussolini.
With votes almost all counted, the government is likely to be headed by the new star of Italian politics, Giorgia Meloni, who will also become the country’s first ever female prime minister.
The result has sent shockwaves throughout Italian and European politics, raising questions over potential domestic policies on issues such as immigration and Rome’s support for Ukraine.
Right-wing leaders across Europe immediately hailed Meloni’s victory and her party’s meteoric rise as sending a historic message to Brussels, while those on the left warned of “dark days” ahead.
Near-final results showed the centre-right coalition netting some 44 per cent of the parliamentary vote, with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which traces its origins to the post-war, neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, snatching some 26 per cent.
Her coalition partners divided up the remainder, with the anti-immigrant League of Matteo Salvini winning nine per cent and the more moderate Forza Italia of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi taking around eight per cent.
The centre-left Democratic Party and its allies had around 26 per cent, while the 5-Star Movement - which had been the biggest vote-getter in 2018 Parliamentary elections - saw its share of the vote halved to some 15 per cent his time around.
Turnout was a historic low of 64 per cent.
Meloni’s comprehensive victory should guarantee her being officially appointed Italy’s prime minister in the next few weeks, despite the unpredictability of Italian politics.
A triumphant Meloni though vowed to unite Italy.
“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 Italy]”, Ms Meloni said at her party’s Rome headquarters.
She added: “It is a victory I want to dedicate to everyone who is no longer with us and wanted this night. Italy chose us. We will not betray [the country] as we never have.”
“History was written today”, she wrote on Facebook.
However, even on her day of victory, experts were pointing to potential problems ahead for Meloni.
Her choice of coalition partners has prompted concerns. Salvini and Berlusconi are controversial figures, who some fear could cause frictions in the coalition as they agitate for senior positions in government.
A Meloni-led government is largely expected to follow Italy’s current foreign policy, including her pro-Nato stance and strong support for supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russia’s invasion, but her allies have taken a different tone.
Both Berlusconi and Salvini have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While both have distanced themselves from his invasion, Salvini has warned that sanctions against Moscow are hurting Italian industry, and Berlusconi has excused Mr Putin’s invasion as being pushed on him by pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas.
And there are already concerns that the anti-immigration Salvini wants a return to heading the interior ministry, although there have been reports Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, is against this, signalling an early potential headache for the new PM. He may also find it difficult as The League’s vote shrank in this election.
The issue of migration is likely to pit Rome against Brussels.
Meloni has called for a naval blockade to prevent migrant boats from leaving North African shores, and has proposed screening potential asylum-seekers in Africa, before they set out on smugglers’ boats to Europe.
Meloni is a eurosceptic but may have to be pragmatic in relations with the EU as Italy has little room to manoeuvre given the economic windfall Italy is receiving from Brussels in coronavirus recovery funds.
Rome secured 191 billion euros (£171 billion), the biggest chunk of the EU’s 750 billion-euro (£670 billion) recovery package, and is bound by certain reform and investment milestones it must hit to receive it all.
Eurosceptic Viktor Orban, Hungary’s leader, was one of the first leaders to congratulate Ms Meloni on her victory.
He wrote: “In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe’s challenges.”
French politician Marine Le Pen’s party hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” for the EU.Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, tweeted that Meloni “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”
The vice president of the European Parliament, Katharina Barley of the Social Democrats of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said Meloni’s victory was “worrying” given her affiliations with Orban and Donald Trump.“
Her electoral lip service to Europe cannot hide the fact that she represents “a danger to constructive coexistence in Europe,” she was quoted as saying by German daily WELT.
Meloni proudly touts her roots as a militant in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, or MSI, which was formed in the aftermath of WWII with the remnants of Mussolini’s fascist supporters. Meloni joined in 1992 as a 15-year-old.