Italy’s national elections are likely to produce a hung parliament, exit polls on Rai state television and private channel La 7 showed after voting ended on Sunday.
A centre-right coalition was set to win most seats in parliament ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, with the center-left third, according to the polls.
However, the center-right, which includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!), and the far-right League and Brothers of Italy, were seen falling some way short of an absolute majority, pollsters said.
5-Star is likely to be the largest single party by a wide margin, with 29.5-32.5 percent of the vote for the lower house, according to the Rai exit poll.
A centre-left alliance dominated by former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party (PD) was projected to win 25-28 percent, with the PD itself set to take 20-23 percent.
Support for the center-right bloc totaled 33-36 percent, Rai said. Within the center-right, the League and Forza Italia were seen level on 12.5-15.5, with Brothers of Italy on 3.5-5.5.
An exit poll on Sky Italia television showed the League on 14.5 percent in the lower house, with Forza Italia on 14 percent.
During two months of grinding election campaigning, party leaders repeatedly ruled out any post-election tie-ups with rivals. However, Italy has a long history of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemate.
Parliament will meet for the first time on March 23 and formal talks on forming a government are not likely to start until early April.
Financial markets have appeared little concerned by the Italian ballot, but investors are likely to take fright at any suggestion the 5-Star could form a coalition with the League.
Exit polls suggested the two forces would have enough seats to govern together and they have in the past shared strong anti-euro views. While the League still says it wants to leave the single currency at the earliest feasible moment, the 5-Star says the time for quitting the euro has passed.
Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, 5-Star has sought to allay fears in EU capitals over its policies, dropping some of its more radical proposals, like leaving NATO, and promising to be business-friendly if they win power.
It has always shunned the idea of entering any formal coalition. During the campaign, Di Maio said he would seek cross-party support for his programme, which includes “drastic” cuts to corporate taxes, slashing red tape and guaranteeing a minimum monthly income of up to 780 euros ($963) for the poor.
This so-called “Universal Wage” has helped the party draw massive support in the underdeveloped south, with pollsters predicting the 5-Star could sweep most first-past-the-post seats in regions below Rome.
By contrast, Berlusconi and his far-right, populist allies were expected to win the majority of seats in the wealthier north, with the centre-left squeezed into a narrow stretch of territory across centralItaly, including Tuscany.
Populist parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis. Italy’s mainstream parties have found it especially hard to contain voter anger, with the economy still 6 percent smaller than a decade ago and unemployment stuck at about 11 percent.