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Italians Vote In Election That May Bring Far Right To Power

Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni's electoral alliance appeared to hold a wide lead in Italy's national vote, an exit poll on state television reported.

Italians Vote In Election That May Bring Far Right To Power
Alessandra Tarantino / AP
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Italians voted Sunday in an election that could move the country's politics sharply toward the right during a critical time for Europe, with the war in Ukraine fueling skyrocketing energy bills and testing the West's resolve to stand united against Russian aggression.

Four hours before polls' closing time, turnout was running 7% lower than at the same time in 2018, which had a record-setting low turnout of 73%. The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after polling stations close at 11 p.m. (2100 GMT), with projections based on partial results coming early Monday.

The publication of opinion polls is banned in the two weeks leading up to the election. Polls before then indicated that far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, was the most popular.

If that sentiment holds, Meloni would be positioned to form the country's first far-right-led government since the end of World War II. If Meloni becomes premier, she will be the first woman in Italy to hold that office.

"Today you can help write history," Meloni tweeted Sunday.

Meloni's party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Running close behind in final opinion polls was former Premier Enrico Letta and his center-left Democratic Party.

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Assembling a viable, ruling coalition in Italy could take weeks, however.

Meloni joined forces in an election alliance with another right-wing leader, Matteo Salvini, who heads the anti-migrant League party, as well as with 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.

Nearly 51 million Italians were eligible to vote Sunday. Despite Europe's many crises, many voters told pollsters that they feel alienated from politics. Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn't run for office.

"I hope we'll see honest people, and this is very difficult nowadays," Adriana Gherdo said at a polling station in Rome.

What kind of government the eurozone's third-largest economy might be getting was being closely watched in Europe, given Meloni's criticism of "Brussels bureaucrats" and her ties to other right-wing leaders. She recently defended Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban after the European Commission recommended suspending billions of euros in funding to Hungary over concerns about democratic backsliding and the possible mismanagement of EU money.

The election Sunday was being held six months early after Premier Mario Draghi's pandemic unity government collapsed in late July.

Opinion polls found that Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, was hugely popular. But the three populist parties in his coalition boycotted a confidence vote tied to an energy relief measure. Their leaders, Salvini, Berlusconi and 5-Star Movement leader Giuseppe Conte, a former premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing Parliament, saw Meloni's popularity growing while theirs were slipping.

Meloni kept her Brothers of Italy party in the opposition, refusing to join Draghi's unity government or Conte's two coalitions that governed after the 2018 vote.

She further distanced herself from Salvini and 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, Salvini and Berlusconi had gushed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Salvini, drawing his voter support heavily from business owners, has expressed fears that Italy's economy could be too heavily hit by repercussions from Western sanctions against Russia.

Italian businesses and households are struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, which in some cases are 10 times higher than last year's.

Draghi remains as caretaker until a new government is sworn in.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press.