Italians were voting on Sunday in an election that could move the country’s politics sharply to the right during a critical time for Europe, with war in Ukraine fuelling skyrocketing energy bills and testing the West’s resolve to stand united against Russian aggression.
The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after polls close at 11pm, with projections based on partial results coming early Monday.
Before publication of opinion polls was banned 15 days ago, far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, with its neo-fascist roots, led in popularity, suggesting Italians were poised to vote their first far-right government into power since the Second World War.
Close behind was former premier Enrico Letta and his centre-left Democratic Party.
Ms Meloni is part of a right-wing alliance with anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time premier who heads the Forza Italia party he created three decades ago.
Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign coalitions, meaning the Democrats are disadvantaged since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.
If Ms Meloni becomes prime minister, she will be the first woman in Italy to hold the office. But assembling a viable, ruling coalition could take weeks.
Nearly 51 million Italians were eligible to vote.
But pollsters predicted turnout could be even lower than the record-setting low of 73% in the last general election in 2018.
They say despite Europe’s many crises, many voters feel alienated from politics, since Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election – each led by someone who had not run for office.
Elections were being held six months early after Mario Draghi’s pandemic unity government collapsed in late July. Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, saw no alternative but to call another election.
Opinion polls found Mr Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, hugely popular.
But the three populist parties in the coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure.
Their leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former prime minister whose party is the largest in the outgoing parliament, saw Ms Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs slipped.
She kept her Brothers of Italy in the opposition, refusing to join Mr Draghi’s unity government or Mr Conte’s two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote.
She further distanced herself from Mr Salvini and Mr Berlusconi with unflagging support for Ukraine, including sending weapons so Kyiv could defend itself against Russia. Her nationalist party champions sovereignty.
Before Russia’s invasion, Mr Salvini and Mr Berlusconi had praised Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the final days of the election campaign, Mr Salvini criticised Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
Many factories in Italy face cutbacks – some already have reduced production – and other business might close as they struggle with gas and electricity bills reaching 10 times higher than a year ago.
The major candidates, despite their political leanings, agreed on the urgency for a EU-wide price cap on energy prices, or failing that, a national one.
Mr Draghi, who remains in a caretaker role until a new government is sworn in, had for months already pressed EU authorities in Brussels for the same remedy.