But the anti-establishment 5-Stars were the highest vote-getter of any single party, prompting their leader, Luigi Di Maio, to immediately assert his right to govern Italy.
With no party or coalition able to form a governing majority, we're in for the usual post-vote deal-making.
"Ungovernable Italy", read the headline in La Stampa. A separate coalition comprising the far-right League and center-right Forza Italia is set to win most seats in the lower house of parliament, with a combined 37 percent of the vote. That's because a pre-election fall-back plan in the event of a hung parliament was to form a "large coalition" government supported by both Renzi's PD and a Berlusconi-led center right.
The recent polls show Salvini's emergence as an eminent figure in country's far-right movement, just after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi whose Forza Italia was in the lead.
A triumphant Salvini celebrated the victory of the center-right bloc, saying it had won the "right and the duty to govern", and announced that his party, not Berlusconi's, would lead that effort.
The Northern League's economics chief on Monday raised the possibility of an alliance with 5-Star, opening the door for a potential future Italian government that would be Eurosceptic and anti-NATO, likely to challenge EU budget restrictions and have little interested in further European integration.
He confirmed the League's political path would remain within the center-right, dismissing any chance of a possible alliance with populist M5S to form a government.
Matteo Salvini, the head of Italy's anti-migrant, euroskeptic League party declared Monday that the shared European euro currency is "wrong" and is ultimately destined to end.
The 5-Stars had a remarkably strong showing in the south, which has always been a stronghold of the centre-right and Forza Italia.
The 5-Star movement tripled the number of parliamentarians over the last election in 2013, when it was also the first party but only by a hair's breadth and the government went to the Democratic Party.
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"Renzi has been obliterated in what is perhaps the shortest boom-to-bust cycle of Italy's political history", Francesco Galietti, political analyst at Policy Sonar, said in a note.
The projected votes represent a poor showing for the outgoing center-left Democratic Party government.
The League are no better, perhaps even worse because they are a more known far-right party, who call for deportation of many non-Italians and have even been known to praise Benito Mussolini's; leadership of Italy during the Fascist era.
The Euroskeptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement was the biggest single victor with about a third of the vote, though it will not have enough seats to form a government. According to the partial results, the League captured around 18 percent of the vote, while Forza Italia had less than 14 percent. But the task awaiting Italy's President Sergio Mattarella, who must now steer Italy's divided political groupings towards forming a workable majority, will test the 77-year old's proverbial calm.
'Now, however, it looks increasingly unlikely that populist parties, and Five Star in particular, can be left out of a broad coalition given the election result.
Reuters reports, "The European Union has insisted that Italy take charge of the newcomers, letting hardly any of them move to other EU states".
"Defeated everywhere else in Europe, populism won here".
Anti-establishment parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, and Italy's economy remains 6 per cent smaller than a decade ago and unemployment is stuck at about 11 per cent.