Italians are voting in an election that could move the country’s politics sharply toward 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.
Polls opened at 7am (1500 AEST) on Sunday. The counting of paper ballots was expected to begin shortly after they close at 11pm local time, with projections based on partial results coming early on Monday morning.
Before publication of opinion polls were 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 World War II.
Close behind was former premier Enrico Letta and his centre-left Democratic Party.
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 Meloni becomes premier, 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 per cent 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 hadn’t 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 have voters elect a new Parliament.
Opinion polls found 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 premier whose party is the largest in the outgoing parliament, saw Meloni’s popularity growing while theirs slipped.