Italy’s national elections Sunday looked set to result in strong support for right-wing and populist parties, according to initial exit polls, but not enough to crown a clear winner -- suggesting that a hung parliament and lengthy negotiations are the most likely immediate outcome.
An exit poll by RAI state television found that a right-wing coalition, consisting of former premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party along with the anti-migration League and Brothers of Italy, would have the most votes with 33-36 percent in the lower house, but were unlikely to turn that into a working majority.
The RAI poll, reported by Italian news wire ANSA, found that Forza Italia was running neck-and-neck with the League, led by firebrand Matteo Salvini. Salvini and Berlusconi had agreed that if their coalition took power, then whichever party had the most votes would be prime minister. Berlusconi has tipped European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his pick should Forza Italia be the largest party in the coalition.
Berlusconi can't run for office because of a tax fraud conviction.
The populist 5-Star Movement looked to be the biggest single party overall, predicted to gain approximately 30 percent of the vote in both the lower house and the Senate.
5-Star’s leaders repeatedly have ruled out forming coalitions with traditional Italian parties, but its 31-year-old candidate for prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, has hinted at at openness at potential coalitions, and may find himself under pressure to turn a number of electoral wins into actual governing power.
“The first figures, if confirmed, would be extraordinary. I would say historic,” Alfonso Bonafede, a 5-Star lawmaker, told Politico. “That would mean that the 5-Star Movement will be the pillar of the next legislature.”
Should the polls turn out to be accurate, the election likely would be only the first step in what could turn out to be lengthy coalition negotiations as parties try making deals to put themselves on a path to power.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella could play an increasingly important role in the next few weeks as he monitors the negotiations and looks to work out who has the best chance of being able to form a government.
Ahead of the election, experts predicting a hung parliament said that once negotiations got under way, all bets were off as to how any coalition could appear.
“The only one who has a chance [for an absolute majority] is Berlusconi the immortal and his coalition,” Franco Pavoncello, professor of political science at Rome’s John Cabot University, told Fox News. “If you don’t get that you must start talking to the other groups and see if you can put together some strange bedfellows in a rather strange bed.”
However, there is a good chance that a governing coalition could end up leaning significantly to the right of the current Democratic Party’s leadership under Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
The Democratic Party's center-left coalition, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, looked to have a disappointing night, with the RAI poll predicting a result of between 24.5 percent and 27.5 percent.
But Renzi could still find himself back in office should his party end up in a coalition either with 5-Star, or even in a “grand coalition” with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. At the other end of the spectrum, a populist coalition of 5-Star, the League and the Brothers of Italy would send shivers through the spines of many E.U. leaders.
The League’s Salvini appeared delighted by the initial projections, some which suggested the League may outperform Forza Italia in the Senate, tweeting out a message of thanks to supporters.
Other populists also watched the election with interest. Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was in Rome for the election, while right-wing former French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen gleefully predicted that the European Union "is going to have a bad evening" with a smiley face emoji.
The likelihood of a right-wing coalition was boosted after Democratic politicians continued to rule out a possible coalition with 5-Star, even after the exit poll was announced.
"We are alternative to [5-Star]," Democratic whip Ettore Rosato said, according to ANSA. "If they have the numbers, they should govern. We'll be in the opposition."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.