Opinion polls indicate voters might elect the first far-right premier of the post-World War 2 era — and the first woman to lead an Italian government — in the person of Giorgia Meloni.
Millions of Italians are set to vote in an election that is forecast to return the country's most right-wing government since World War Two and usher in its first woman prime minister.
Italy's first autumn national election on Sunday in more than a century was triggered by party infighting that brought down PM Mario Draghi's broad national unity government in July.
A far-right alliance led by Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy party appeared on course for a clear victory when the last opinion polls were published two weeks ago.
Meloni would be the obvious candidate for prime minister as leader of an alliance also featuring Matteo Salvini's League party and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia.
That would cap a remarkable rise for Meloni, a 45-year-old from Rome whose party won only 4 percent of the vote in the last national election in 2018.
Voting runs on Sunday from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm [local time], with exit polls released when balloting ends.
Scope for surprise
Given Italy’s fractured political spectrum, no single party stands much chance of winning enough seats to govern alone. Right-wing and right-leaning centrists forged a campaign pact that could propel Meloni into power.
The rival centre-left bloc failed to secure a similarly broad alliance with left-leaning populists or centrists, which could leave it at a big disadvantage.
The complex calculations required by a hybrid proportional/first-past-the-post electoral law mean it may be many hours before a precise seat count is available.
With a polls blackout in force in the two weeks before the election, there is still scope for a surprise.
There has been speculation that support for the left-leaning 5-Star Movement, the biggest party in 2018, has picked up in recent days.
A late surge by 5-Star could jeopardise the rightist alliance's chances of winning a majority in the Senate or upper house, complicating the process of forming a government.
Even if there is a clear cut result, the next government is unlikely to take office before late October, with the new parliament not meeting until October 13.
Leaders, markets eyeing nervously
Italy has a history of political instability and the next prime minister will lead the country's 68th government since 1946 and face a host of challenges, notably rising energy costs.
The outcome of the vote will also be watched nervously in European capitals and on financial markets.
European Union leaders, keen to preserve unity after Russia's assault on Ukraine, are concerned that Italy will be a more unpredictable partner than under former European Central Bank chief Draghi.
For markets, there are the perennial worries about Italy's ability to manage a debt pile that amounts to around 150 percent of gross domestic product.
Meloni plays down her party's post-fascist roots and portrays it as a mainstream conservative group.
She has pledged to support Western policy on Ukraine and not take undue risks with an economy hit hard by rising prices.
Italy is also benefiting from $187 billion of post-Covid EU recovery funds, offering a powerful incentive to stick to agreed reform plans.
But there are signs of division between Meloni and her allies on foreign policy.
League leader Salvini has criticised the impact of higher energy prices on Italians, blaming it in part on the blowback from Western sanctions against Russia.
Berlusconi sparked outrage late in the campaign when he appeared to defend Russian President Vladimir Putin.