The Brothers of Italy party, led by one-time Mussolini supporter Giorgia Meloni, is leading opinion polls and looks set to take office in a coalition with the far-right League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia parties.
Meloni, 45, who has campaigned on a motto of “God, country, family”, is hoping to become Italy’s first female prime minister.
Turnout was around 19 percent by 12pm, according to the interior ministry, in line with the last elections in 2018, as large queues were reported outside voting stations in some areas.
“I’m playing to win, not just to take part,” Matteo Salvini, head of the right-wing League, told reporters as he went to cast his ballot.
“I can’t wait to come back from tomorrow as part of the government of this extraordinary country,” he added.
President Sergio Mattarella and Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, also voted early Sunday. Polls close at 11pm local time.
Many voters are expected to pick Meloni, “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP.
Brussels and the markets are watching closely, amid concern that Italy, a founding member of the European Union, may be the latest member to veer hard right less than two weeks after far-right success in elections in Sweden.
Meloni has dedicated her campaign to trying to prove she is ready despite her party never before being in power.
Brothers of Italy, which has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini, pocketed just four percent of the vote during the last elections in 2018.
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Meloni now presents her views as more moderate, notably abandoning her calls for Italy to leave the EU’s single currency – though backing Hungary in its rule of law battles with Brussels.
Her coalition wants to renegotiate the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund, arguing that the almost 200 billion euros Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis aggravated by the Ukraine war.
But “Italy cannot afford to be deprived of these sums”, political sociologist Marc Lazar told AFP, which means Meloni actually has “very limited room for manoeuvre”.
The funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who called snap elections in July after his national unity coalition collapsed.
Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni claims she strongly supports the EU’s sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.
Berlusconi, the billionaire former premier who has long been friends with Vladimir Putin, faced an outcry this week after defending the Russian president’s war in Ukraine.
Meloni also rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies” and “the violence of Islam” and has often promoted a far-right conspiracy theory claiming “the left” wants to replace Italians with “immigrants”.
The centre-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Enrico Letta, says Meloni is a danger to democracy.
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It also claims her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, with Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.
On the economy, Meloni’s coalition pledges to cut taxes while increasing social spending, regardless of the cost. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they want the EU’s rules on public spending amended.
But with no indication of how the parties intend to cover the costs of such policies, markets are wary of their likely victory.
The last opinion polls two weeks before election day suggested one in four voters were backing Meloni.
However, around 20 percent of voters remain undecided, and there are signs she may end up with a smaller majority in parliament than expected.
In particular, support appears to be growing for the populist Five Star Movement in the poor south.
The next government is unlikely to take office before the second half of October, and despite pledges from Meloni and Salvini to serve five years, history suggests they may struggle.
Italian politics are notoriously unstable. The country has had 67 governments since 1946.