Right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni says she is ready to govern for "all Italians" after her party swept to victory in general elections, putting her on course to guide Italy's most right-wing government since World War II.
Ms 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.
Projections published by the Rai public broadcaster and Quorum/YouTrend both put Brothers of Italy on top, at between 24 and 26% of the vote, with Ms Meloni favourite to become her country's first female prime minister.
Her success represents a seismic change in Italy, a founding member of the European Union and the eurozone's third largest economy -- and for the EU, just weeks after the far-right outperformed in elections in Sweden.
Ms 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 Italy must assert its interests more in Brussels.
At a time of soaring inflation, a looming energy crisis and the war in Ukraine, the 45-year-old sought to reassure those worried about her lack of experience and radical past.
Ms Meloni said voters had sent a "clear message" of support for her party to lead their right-wing coalition to power.
"If we are called to govern this nation we will do it for all Italians. We will do it with the aim of uniting people, of enhancing what unites them rather than what divides them," she told reporters.
Her allies, Matteo Salvini's far-right League and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, lagged behind her.
But the coalition was forecast to win around 43%, enough to secure a majority in both houses of parliament.
Brothers of Italy and the League "look to get, together, the highest percentage of votes ever registered by (far) right parties in the history of Western Europe since 1945", Italian electoral studies centre CISE said.
Full results are not due until later Monday but the centre-left Democratic Party, the coalition's main rivals, conceded, saying it was a "sad" day.
Turnout fell to a historic low of around 64%, about nine points lower than the last elections in 2018.
'Proud, free Europe'
Congratulations came in quickly from Ms Meloni's nationalist allies around Europe, from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to Spain's far-right party Vox.
"Meloni has shown the way for a proud, free Europe of sovereign nations," Vox leader Santiago Abascal tweeted.
Ms 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.
From a "very aggressive" opposition strategy under Mr Draghi, Ms Meloni then chose a "very cautious, very reassuring campaign", CISE head Lorenzo De Sio told AFP.
"Her challenge will be to turn this electoral success into a governing leadership... that can last," he said.
Italian politics are notoriously unstable, with nearly 70 governments since 1946, and Ms Meloni, Mr Salvini and Mr Berlusconi do not always agree.
Ms Meloni's "dissatisfied and essentially defeated allies" would likely be a "problem", the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.
The League and Forza Italia looked to have performed poorly, taking 8% each, down from 17 and 14% respectively in 2018.
Mr Salvini, who has been eclipsed by Ms Meloni, was the first to react to the coalition's projected win, tweeting "Grazie! (Thanks!)"
Ms Meloni - whose experience of government has been limited to a stint as a minister in Mr Berlusconi's 2008 government - has major challenges ahead.
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% of gross domestic product.
Brothers of Italy has roots in the post-fascist movement founded by supporters of Benito Mussolini, and Ms 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 4% of the vote in 2018 to yesterday's projected 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 €200bn Italy is set to receive should take into account the energy crisis.
But the funds are tied to a series of reforms only just begun by Mr Draghi.
Despite her euroscepticism, Ms Meloni strongly supports the EU's sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, although her allies are another matter.
Mr 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.
A straight-speaking Roman raised by a single mother in a working-class neighbourhood, Ms 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.
The Democratic Party had warned Ms Meloni 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.