Italy Goes to the Polls After Divisive Election Campaign
Italians are heading to the polls today to vote in one of the most uncertain elections in years and one that could determine if Italy will succumb to the populist, Eurosceptic and far-right sentiment that has swept through Europe.
The campaign was marked by the primetime airing of neofascist rhetoric and anti-migrant violence that culminated in the shooting last month of six Africans.
The results of the vote, which are expected to be announced early on Monday, could re-establish Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative former prime minister and billionaire forced out of office in 2011 under a cloud of scandal, as the dominant force in Italian politics.
They might also reveal a surge in support for Italy’s two main populist parties, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right La Lega, which are both Eurosceptic, anti-free trade, pro-Kremlin and opposed to mandatory vaccinations despite Italy being hit by a measles outbreak.
La Lega, previously known as the Northern League, openly embraces an “Italians first” ideology, while Five Star has focused on corruption, but their ascent in recent years from fringe parties to significant players in Italian politics has underscored the depth of anger within the electorate.
The centre-left, led by the former prime minister Matteo Renzi, sought on Friday to make a last-ditch appeal for moderation, calling on the significant number of undecided voters – about 30% – to “think carefully”.
While the centre-right coalition that capitalised on the anti-migrant sentiment led the polls last week, analysts predict the likeliest outcome is a hung parliament.
That will necessitate days and weeks of backroom haggling and horse trading to come up with a coalition government that can win confidence votes in parliament. Just which parties coalesce from among the three main blocs — the centre-right coalition, centre-left coalition and the Five Star Movement — will determine Italy’s course.
“It is very likely that, at the end of the day, none of these three groups will have an absolute majority and they will be forced to start talking to each other and see how to put together a coalition government,” said Franco Pavoncello, the dean of the John Cabot University in Rome.
More than 46 million Italians are eligible to vote from 7am to 11pm (6am-10pm GMT), including Italians abroad who already used postal ballots. Exit polls are expected after polls close, with projections sometime thereafter.
With unemployment at 10.8% and economic growth in the eurozone’s third-largest economy lagging the average, many Italians have all but given up hope for change. Polls indicated a third hadn’t decided or weren’t even sure they would vote.
“The situation is pretty bad,” said Paolo Mercorillo from Ragusa, Sicily, who said he had decided not to vote. “There aren’t candidates who are valid enough.”
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement hoped to capitalise on such disgust, particularly among Italy’s young, and polls indicated the grassroots movement launched in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo would be the largest vote-getter among any single party.
The Five Star candidates were not expected to win enough to govern on their own, and they have sworn not to form coalitions. The movement’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, recently suggested, however, he would be open to talking with potential allies.
Analysts predict the only coalition with a chance of reaching an absolute majority is the centre-right coalition anchored by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. The coalition includes the anti-migrant Lega and the nationalistic, neo-fascist-rooted Brothers of Italy party.
Berlusconi, 81, cannot run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but he has tapped the European parliament president, Antonio Tajani, considered a pro-European moderate, as his pick if the centre-right is asked to form a government.
Lega leader Matteo Salvini is gunning for the top job too though, and some pro-European analysts envision a possible “nightmare scenario” of an extremist alliance among the Five Stars, the Lega and Brothers of Italy. The presence in Rome this weekend of Steve Bannon, the rightwing populist architect of Donald Trump’s White House campaign, was an indication of the stakes.
Roberto D’Alimonte, of Rome’s LUISS University, said such an outcome would be “catastrophic” for the markets. But he said the Five Stars will have to decide if they’re going to join the right or the left if they’re going to move from their longtime perch in the opposition to actually help govern.
“This will be the moment of truth,” he said.
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