ROME: Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni won big in Italian elections on Sunday (Sep 25), the first projections suggested, putting her eurosceptic populists on course to take power at the heart of Europe.
Meloni's Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy's most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Projections published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 24 and 26 per cent of the vote, with Meloni favourite to become her country's first female prime minister.
The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.
Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of "God, country and family", has abandoned her calls for one of Europe's biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.
Her allies, Matteo Salvini's far-right League and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, lagged behind her. But the coalition was forecast to win around 43 per cent, enough to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.
Brothers of Italy and the League "look to get, together, the highest percentage of votes ever registered by (far) right parties in the history of Western Europe since 1945", Italian electoral studies centre CISE said.
The centre-left Democratic Party, the coalition's main rivals, later conceded defeat, with vice-president Debora Serracchiani saying it was a "sad evening for the country".
"PROUD, FREE EUROPE"
Congratulations came in quickly from Meloni's nationalist allies around Europe, from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to Spain's far-right party Vox.
"Meloni has shown the way for a proud, free Europe of sovereign nations," Vox leader Santiago Abascal tweeted.
Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections, at around 64 per cent, down from 73 per cent.
Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.
Hers was the only party not to join Draghi's coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.
From a "very aggressive" opposition strategy under Draghi, Meloni then chose a "very cautious, very reassuring campaign", CISE head Lorenzo De Sio told AFP.
"Her challenge will be to turn this electoral success into a governing leadership ... that can last," he said.
Italian politics are notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi do not always agree.
Meloni's "dissatisfied and essentially defeated allies" would likely be a "problem", the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.
The League and Forza Italia looked to have performed poorly, taking eight per cent each, down from 17 and 14 per cent respectively in 2018.
Salvini, who has been eclipsed by Meloni, was the first to react to the coalition's projected win, tweeting "Grazie! (Thanks!)"
Meloni - whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi's 2008 government - has major challenges ahead.
Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 per cent of gross domestic product.
Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.
She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four per cent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday's projected triumph.
Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy's nationalist interests abroad.
They want to renegotiate the EU's post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost €200 billion Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.
But the funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Draghi.
Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni strongly supports the EU's sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.
Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after suggesting the Russian president was "pushed" into war by his entourage.
A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls "LGBT lobbies", "woke ideology" and "the violence of Islam".
She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy's shores each year.
The Democratic Party had warned Meloni would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.