Millions of Italians began voting on Sunday after a bitter general election campaign dominated by disappointment with the economic recovery and anxiety over immigration, which has fuelled the populist opposition and raised concerns of greater tensions with the EU.
Voting stations opened across Italy at 7am and will close at 11pm, when initial exit polls will be published. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is facing a tough battle to regain power as his ruling centre-left Democratic party, led by his predecessor Matteo Renzi, is expected to suffer big losses in the vote.
Waiting in the wings to replace it is a right-wing coalition led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has made a remarkable comeback at the age of 81, and including two staunchly eurosceptic parties –— the Northern League and Brothers of Italy. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement is also a strong contender and likely to emerge as the party with the single largest group of MPs, amid expectations of a solid performance in the country’s poor southern regions.
“The signs that the traditional political landscape will be overturned are multiplying,” wrote Mario Calabresi, editor of La Repubblica, the Rome-based daily, in a front-page column on Saturday. “The winds of protest and disenchantment are sweeping from north to south.”
According to the interior ministry, 46m Italians are eligible to vote. In the previous general election in 2013, about 75 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots, and concerns are rampant that voter apathy will be higher this year.
If Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition fails to win an outright majority of seats, Italy could be facing a hung parliament, which would lead to a messy and lengthy round of negotiations for the formation of a grand coalition government.
Those talks will be refereed by Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s 76-year old president. “He will do the utmost to avoid new elections and appeal to mainstream national unity, no matter how unlikely the bedfellows,” says Stefano Stefanini, a former adviser to previous Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, and a consultant at Project Associates in Brussels. “I know the mindset. It’s very institutional, very stability oriented and much more powerful than meets the eye.”
Although the final campaign events were held on Friday, with Saturday meant as a day of “electoral silence”, Mr Berlusconi — whose main campaign pledges have been a flat tax and the deportation of 600,000 immigrants — made a high-profile appearance in Naples with his partner Francesca Pascale. The pair ate the city’s traditional pizza, visited the baroque San Severo chapel, and strode through the neighbourhood of San Gregorio Armeno, home to dozens of artisans who craft nativity scene characters. “If we manage, you will all pay less,” Mr Berlusconi told the crowd, referring to the flat tax plan. “It will be an improvement for everyone.”
However, critics have warned that Mr Berlusconi’s plan — which would be difficult to implement politically — risks leading to higher deficits and expanding Italy’s large public debt, worth more than 130 per cent of GDP.
Meanwhile, Five Star has proposed a sweeping anti-poverty plan, including income support, that could also cost billions of euros. The ruling PD has argued that such promises are unrealistic, and urged voters to stay the course with economic policies that have led to a gradual reduction in unemployment in recent years — from 13 per cent to 11 per cent — and lately, a boom in exports and industrial production.
The election comes at a defining moment in Italy’s relationship with the EU. Italy is one of the founding members of the bloc and traditionally one of its biggest supporters, with strong public backing. But in recent years euroscepticism has been spreading, in the wake of the recession and the migrant crisis.
The centre-right coalition leading the polls is doing so on a platform of “less Europe”, while Five Star is demanding sweeping changes to economic policy. The ruling PD is pro-EU but has been worn down by five years of clashes with Brussels. One of its coalition partners, however, is called “More Europe”, and has run an unabashedly pro-EU campaign. Led by Emma Bonino, the 69-year old former EU commissioner and Italian foreign minister, it is battling to exceed the 3 per cent threshold required for representation in parliament.
“I love this sentence from Adenauer: ‘Europe was a dream of few, became a reality for many and will be necessity for all,” Ms Bonino said at her final rally on Friday, referring to one of the EU’s founding fathers. “I love Italy, I want more Italy and because of this I want more Europe.”
However, the anxiety in Rome is that if populists post big gains in the election — even if they do not enter government — Italy could be cut out of the big decisions about the future of the EU, particularly talks over eurozone governance that are gathering pace in Paris and Berlin.