Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots, has never held office but looks set to form Italy’s most far-right government since the fall of dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
Exit polls published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 22 and 26 percent of the vote.
Her allies, Matteo Salvini’s far-right League and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, lagged behind but between them appear to have enough seats to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.
The result must still be confirmed but risks fresh trouble for the European Union, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.
Meloni, who campaigned on a motto of “God, country and family”, has abandoned her calls for one of Europe’s biggest economies to leave the eurozone, but says Rome must assert its interests more in Brussels.
“Today you can participate in writing history,” the 45-year-old tweeted before the polls closed.
Turnout was lower than in the 2018 elections.
Meloni had been leading opinion polls since Prime Minister Mario Draghi called snap elections in July following the collapse of his national unity government.
Hers was the only party not to join Draghi’s coalition when, in February 2021, the former European Central Bank chief was parachuted in to lead a country still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.
For many voters, Meloni was “the novelty, the only leader the Italians have not yet tried”, Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy told AFP before the election.
But the self-declared “Christian mother” – whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Berlusconi’s 2008 government – has huge challenges ahead.
Like much of Europe, Italy is suffering rampant inflation while an energy crisis looms this winter, linked to the conflict in Ukraine.
The Italian economy, the third largest in the eurozone, is also saddled with a debt worth 150 percent of gross domestic product.
‘Limited room for manoeuvre’
Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Meloni herself praised the dictator when she was young.
She has sought to distance herself from the past as she built up her party into a political force, going from just four percent of the vote in 2018 to Sunday’s triumph.
Her coalition campaigned on a platform of low taxes, an end to mass immigration, Catholic family values and an assertion of Italy’s nationalist interests abroad.
They want 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.
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 Draghi.
Despite her euroscepticism, Meloni 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 suggesting the Russian president was “pushed” into war by his entourage.
It is only one area in which Meloni and her allies do not see eye to eye, leading some analysts to predict that their coalition may not last long.
Italian politics is historically unstable, with almost 70 governments since 1946.
A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Meloni rails against what she calls “LGBT lobbies”, “woke ideology” and “the violence of Islam”.
She has vowed to stop the tens of thousands of migrants who arrive on Italy’s shores each year, a position she shares with Salvini, who is currently on trial for blocking charity rescue ships when he was interior minister in 2019.
The centre-left Democratic Party claimed her government would pose a serious risk to hard-won rights such as abortion and will ignore global warming, despite Italy being on the front line of the climate emergency.