ROME (AP) — Far-right Italian politician Giorgia Meloni appeared to strike a moderate tone in her first comments after preliminary results in Sunday’s national election showed her party with neo-fascist roots leading among contenders.
Meloni, 45, said she will strive to unite her country if she’s tasked with forming the next Cabinet.
“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 this country),” the Brothers of Italy leader said speaking at the party’s Rome headquarters.
“Italy chose us,” she said. “We will not betray (the country) as we never have.”
As polls in the run up to Sunday’s vote indicated her as the likely winner, Meloni has moderated her far-right message in an apparent attempt to reassure the European Union and other international partners.
“This is the time for being responsible,” Meloni said, appearing on live on television and describing the situation for Italy and the European Union is “particularly complex.”
If elected, Meloni with her nationalist party would give Italy its first far-right-led government since World War II.
“Italy moves to the right,″ Italian daily La Stampa headlined its front page in an early Monday edition.
The formation of Italy’s next ruling coalition with the help of right-wing allies could take weeks. But if Meloni succeeds, she would be the first woman to hold the country’s premiership.
Her main campaign allies and likely coalition partners are anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and conservative former Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Projections based on just over one-fifth of votes counted from Sunday’s balloting suggested that Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, would win some 25% of the vote. That compared to some 19% by the closest challenger, the center-left Democratic Party of former Premier Enrico Letta. The projections on Italian state TV had a margin of error range of 2-5 percentage points.
Meloni’s strong showing heartened her allies in Europe, intent on shifting the European Union’s politics sharply to the right.
Fellow Euroskeptic politicians on the far-right spectrum were among the first to celebrate. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, congratulated Meloni in a tweet. French politician Marine Le Pen’s party also hailed the result as a “lesson in humility” to the EU.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox opposition party, celebrated Meloni’s lead, tweeting that “millions of Europeans are placing their hopes in Italy.” She “has shown the way for a proud and free Europe of sovereign nations that can cooperate on behalf of everybody’s security and prosperity.”
Meloni’s meteoric rise in the European Union’s third-largest economy comes at a critical time, as much of the continent reels under soaring energy bills, a repercussion of the war in Ukraine, and the West’s resolve to stand united against Russian aggression is being tested. In the last election, in 2018, Meloni’s party took 4.4%.
Tabulating paper ballots was expected to last well into Monday morning.
More than one-third of the 50.9 million eligible voters deserted the balloting. Final turnout was 64%, according to the Interior Ministry. That is far lower than the previous record for low turnout, 73% in 2018′s last election.
Meloni didn’t make any immediate comment after the exit poll was announced on RAI state TV. But earlier, she tweeted to Italian voters: “Today you can help write history.”
Meloni’s party was forged from the legacy of a neo-fascist party formed shortly after the war by nostalgists of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s complex electoral law rewards campaign alliance. Meloni was buoyed going into the vote by joining campaign forces with two longtime admirers of Russian President Vladimir Putin — Salvini and Berlusconi. She herself is a staunch advocate of supplying arms to Ukraine to defend itself against the attacks launched by Russia.
The Democrats went into the vote at a steep disadvantage since they failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists and centrists.
Italy has had three coalition governments since the last election — each led by someone who hadn’t run for office, and that appeared to have alienated many voters, pollsters had said.
“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, which enjoyed wide citizen popularity, collapsed in late July.
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.
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.