Italians head to polls after bitter campaign

Far-right and populist parties are expected to make major gains in Sunday’s vote, although a hung parliament is the most likely outcome

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of right-wing party Forza Italia, prepares to vote on March 4, 2018 at a polling station in Milan. 
Italians vote today in one of the country's most uncertain elections, with far-right and populist parties expected to make major gains and Silvio Berlusconi set to play a leading role. / AFP PHOTO / Miguel MEDINA
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Italians are voting on Sunday after a bitter campaign dominated by anti-migrant rhetoric and frustration with the listless economy.

Polls published before a blackout imposed two weeks ago showed a hung parliament as the most likely outcome, although far-right and populist parties are expected to make major gains.

Voting stations are open until 11 p.m. (2 a.m. UAE time), when the first exit polls will be released. Consolidated results are expected on Monday.

Long lines were reported in voting locations from Milan in the north to Palermo in Sicily, where several stations opened later because several thousand ballots had to be reprinted because of errors.

A hung parliament would trigger an extended period of back-room haggling and horse trading among the parties as they seek 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 anti-establishment 5-Star Movement — will determine Italy's course.

Most pollsters predict the 5-Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, will be the largest vote-getter among any single party. However, they are unlikely to win enough votes to rule on their own and they have repeatedly rejected the idea of striking deals with other parties.

Mr Di Maio has recently suggested he would be open to talking with potential allies, but most analysts still don’t think he will agree to take part in a governing coalition. “Doing so would mean a major loss of credibility in the eyes of the movement’s voters, and we believe that most established parties would be reluctant to conclude an alliance with M5S, as well,” Peter Ceretti, Italy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told The National.

Instead, four-time premier Silvio Berlusconi could end up the kingmaker after the election. His Forza Italia party is polling at around 18 per cent, but it has joined forces with other centre-right parties in a coalition which is predicted to scoop up around 37 per cent of votes.

The 81-year-old billionaire is himself barred from becoming prime minister again due to a tax fraud conviction, but he has tapped European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, considered a pro-European moderate, as his pick if the centre-right is asked to form a government.


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Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-migrant League which is part of Mr Berlusconi’s coalition, is gunning for the top job too though, and some pro-European analysts envision a possible "nightmare scenario" of an extremist alliance among the 5-Star, the League and nationalistic, neofascist-rooted Brothers of Italy. The presence in Rome this weekend of Steve Bannon, right-wing populist architect of Donald Trump's White House campaign, was an indication of the stakes.

Another possibility is that Forza Italia and the centre-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, build a “grand coalition” after the election in order to shut the 5-Star Movement out of power. It is a prospect that would reassure investors but risks spreading more cynicism and emboldening populists and the far-right.

With unemployment at 10.8 per cent 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 5-Star Movement, set up in 2009 by stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo, hoped to capitalise on such disgust, particularly among Italy's young.

Immigration has been the other dominant theme in the election. The campaign was marked by the prime-time airing of neofascist rhetoric and anti-migrant violence that culminated in a shooting spree last month against six Africans.

The centre-right coalition has capitalised on the anti-migrant sentiment. Mr Berlusconi and Mr Salvini have promised to expel 600,000 illegal migrants if they win power – a proposal dismissed by the centre-left as logistically impossible.

Markets will be watching closely to see if Italy will succumb to the populist, Eurosceptic and far-right sentiment that has swept through Europe.

Last year French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte held off the challenge of Eurosceptic populists in national elections and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party remained the biggest force in the German parliament despite the rise of the anti-immigrant AfD.

Heavily indebted Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone and prolonged political stalemate could reawaken the threat of market instability.

However, the prospect of a hung parliament hasn’t scared investors in the run-up to the vote, with Italy’s benchmark stock index the best performer of major European markets this year.

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