- Exit polls show center-right coalition set to win
- Italy is facing historically low voter turnout
- Giorgia Meloni on course to become Italy's first ever female PM
- Final results expected Monday
This live updates article has now been closed. For more on this story click here.
Meloni vows to govern 'for all Italians'
As her coalition looked set for a victory, Meloni said Italians gave a "clear" mandate to back the center-right bloc and called for unity.
"If we are called upon to govern this nation, we will do so for all Italians, with the aim of uniting the people, of exalting what unites them rather than what divides them," Meloni told reporters. "We will not betray your trust."
Center-left concedes defeat
The Democratic Party (PD), Italy's main center-left group, has conceded defeat and said it was positioned to become the largest opposition force in the next parliament.
"This is a sad evening for the country," Debora Serracchiani, a senior PD lawmaker, told reporters in the party's first official comment on the result.
"[The right] has the majority in parliament, but not in the country," Serracchiani said.
The PD's center-left alliance appeared to be the closest contender the center-right bloc in exit polls, with as much as 29.5% of the vote.
Right-wing politicians across Europe congratulate Meloni
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, sent their congratulations to Giorgia Meloni after exit polls showed her party's victory.
"In these difficult times, we need more than ever friends who share a common vision and approach to Europe's challenges," said Orban's political adviser Balazs Orban.
With their right-wing nationalist leaders, both Budapest and Warsaw have been locked in rows with Brussels. Recently, the European Commission recommended suspending billions in funds for Hungary over what it said was the receding of democratic values.
Meanwhile, French National Rally leader Marine Le Pen and the leader of Spain's Vox party, Santiago Abascal, both congratulated Meloni.
In Germany, lawmakers from from the far-right AfD party also welcomed the election outcome.
"We celebrate with Italy!" AfD lawmaker Beatrix von Storch wrote late Sunday on Twitter.
"Sweden in the north, Italy in the south: left-wing governments are yesterday's news," she wrote, referring to Sweden's recent election results.
Jordan Bardella, a French member of the European Parliament, said Italians had given EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen "a lesson in humility."
Last week, von der Leyen said Brussels had tools to pressure the new Italian government if it failed to follow EU rules.
"No threat of any kind can stop democracy," Bardella said. "The people of Europe are raising their heads and taking their destiny back into their own hands."
Exit polls show center-right coalition set to win
Italy's center-right coalition, led by nationalist Giorgia Meloni, is likely to win a majority in the general election as polling stations closed at 11 p.m. local time (2100 UTC/GMT).
The alliance, which also includes the right-wing populist Lega and the conservative Forza Italia, is expected to win more than half of the seats in parliament.
First projections showed the alliance led by Meloni's Brothers of Italy party securing 42.2% of the vote. Exit polls published by the RAI public broadcaster put Meloni's Brothers of Italy on top, at between 24.6% of the vote.
RAI said the right-wing alliance would win between 227 and 257 of the 400 seats in the lower house of parliament, and 111-131 of the 200 Senate seats.
As leader of the strongest party, Meloni could lead the future government as Italy's first female prime minister.
Meanwhile, the center-left campaign alliance of the Social Democrats with left-wing parties and the Greens secured 26.5%. The Social Democrats are seen as the second largest party with 19.4%.
The left-wing 5 Star Movement grabbed 16.5%.
Italians have an overall sense of fatigue, researcher says
Shortly before the polls closed in Italy, Andrea Carlo, a researcher at the German Historical Institute in Rome, spoke to DW about the mood in the country and the phenomenon of the rise of Giorgia Meloni's far right party Brothers of Italy.
"Italians have an overall sense of fatigue. They feel they want a change, and they are looking for a party for that," Carlo said.
According to the researcher, Giorgia Meloni has done a very good job of smothering her party's neo-fascist roots and giving it "a palatable conservative veneer."
Carlo also mentioned that the major campaign topic in Italy was the rising energy prices. "The right-wing block is talking about decoupling gas and electricity prices and also about self-sufficiency, the move to nuclear energy," the researcher said.
Italy is facing historically low voter turnout
Voter numbers in Italy are on track to hit record lows. Only 51% of eligible voters had turned up at polling stations by 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), the Interior Ministry announced.
In the 2018 elections, the figure by this time was around 59%. This means Italy could register its lowest voter turnout of its postwar history, which stood at a record low of just under 73% in 2018.
"There are still just over 3 hours left and there has been bad weather today, but polls might have been right about record-low turnout this year," DW correspondent Giulia Saudelli wrote on Twitter.
According to official figures, turnout has been particularly weak in the south of the country in the regions of Calabria, Puglia, Campania and Basilicata, as well as on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, where partial turnout was well below 40% in some cases with a few hours left to vote.
Pope Francis touches on campaign issues
Pope Francis visited Matera in southern Italy on Sunday to close out an Italian church congress. Neither he nor his hosts mentioned the election explicitly, but his comments did touch on some campaign hot buttons.
At the end of an outdoor Mass in Matera, Francis asked Italians to have more children: "I'd like to ask Italy: More births, more children," he said.
Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, a phenomenon Francis has in the past described as a "demographic winter."
Far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, whose slogan is "God, family and homeland," has also called on Italians to have more children, proposing larger financial incentives for couples who have kids.
Francis also noted that Sunday was the Catholic Church's World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
"Immigrants are to be welcomed, accompanied, promoted and integrated," he said.
Meloni and her center-right alliance have said they will impose a strict crackdown on migrants trying to reach Italy and mainland Europe via Libyan-based smugglers.
Italy's bishops conference did also urge people to vote on Sunday, without offering any advice on who to support.
Turnout similar to 2018
Voter turnout by midday reached 19.21% of those who have the right to vote, based on a final count in all localities, the Italian news agency ANSA reported citing the Interior Ministry.
The rate of participation was only slightly lower than at the same time during the 2018 election when it reached 19.43%.
DW correspondent Giulia Saudelli said that the number of voters showing up to vote at a polling station in central Rome had "picked up mid-morning."
"We're told numbers are pretty good for a Sunday morning," she added in a tweet. "Heavy rain was expected but instead the sun is shining."
First party leaders cast their votes
Leaders of several major Italian parties have already voted this morning.
Enrico Letta of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) voted at a polling station in Rome, while the head of the right-wing, anti-migrant League, Matteo Salvini, voted in Milan.
Salvini is running along with the far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) leader Giorgia Meloni and Forza Italia's Silvio Berlusconi in a right-wing coalition.
He has seen his previous popularity eclipsed by the rising star of the far right, who is expected to win more seats. Asked if he considered coming in just fourth place as a defeat, he said "I'm playing to win, not to participate," ANSA reported.
Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has also voted in Florence. A one-time time leader of the PD, Renzi split from the party and founded Italia Viva, which is running as part of the Azione-Italia Viva centrist coalition.
Who can vote in the election?
Slightly more than 50 million people have been called to cast their votes, according to the Italian news agency ANSA.
Of those, more than 4.7 million are voting from abroad — more than half, 2.6 million, are voting from other European countries.
Some 2.7 million people can vote for the first time. The voting age in Italy is 18.
There are just over 61,500 polling stations around the country that will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., with the first exit polls expected as soon as they close.
Turnout is expected to hit a new record low this year, falling even lower than the previous record of 72.9% in 2018.
President casts his vote
Italian President Sergio Mattarella has voted in his hometown of Palermo on the island of Sicily.
He turned up at his polling station, a local school, not long after the polls opened.
The presidency is not up for grabs in Sunday's vote as it is decided in a separate, complicated system involving lawmakers and regional representatives.
Mattarella won his second term in January.
Italians began casting their votes on Sunday in what is being dubbed a crucial election.
People aged 18 and above are voting for lawmakers in both the lower house Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the upper house of parliament.
Balloting began at 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) and will run until 11 p.m., with the exit polls being released when voting ends.
But it may take hours before a precise seat count is available due to complex calculations required by a hybrid proportional/first-past-the-post electoral law.
The snap general election was triggered by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi's resignation in July when the populist 5-Star Movement — one of the several parties in Draghi's marquee coalition, which included leftists, right-wing and centrist parties — decided to withdraw its support for the prime minister's economic aid decree.
Draghi, who was chosen by the president to form a government after the previous 5-Star-led government bundled, has said that he will not contest again.
The key election also comes at a time when Europe is reeling from the effects of Russia's war in Ukraine.
The vote could see a return to Italy's most right-wing government since World War II — bringing euroskeptic populists to the heart of Europe.
Who are the candidates?
There are five main candidates — including three former heads of government and two far-right leaders — vying for power in the elections.
A right-wing alliance led by Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party appears to be leading in as per the opinion polls and looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia parties.
Meloni — who has previously expressed admiration for former Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — could become Italy's first female prime minister.
The frontrunner for the center-left alliance is the Democratic Party led by Enrico Letta.
There are speculations that support for the 5-Star Movement has gained some momentum in the last few days. A late surge by the left-leaning party could put the rightist alliance's chances of clinching a majority in the Senate in jeopardy, making the process of forming a government more complex.
How would a potential Meloni government handle the EU?
If Meloni's Brothers of Italy party manages to become the strongest force in the center-right populist coalition governing Italy, it could impact Rome's relationship with the EU.
How would a potential Meloni government negotiate Italy's position in Brussels? DW's Bernd Riegert spoke to political experts regarding Meloni's stances on foreign policy and European integration.
fb, ab, dvv/wd, jsi (AFP, AP, Reuters)