Italy election: Voters go to polls amid high levels of distrust in mainstream politics

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“The least bad choice is the best,” a middle-aged couple says before entering a polling station in Rome. From 7am until 11 o’clock on Sunday evening, Italians cast their ballots in the face of long lines, delays and even – in the case of Sicily – finding their polling stations closed because the wrong ballot papers were delivered.

But above all, the biggest obstacle to voters was a widespread sense of distrust in politics. The latest opinion polls on the eve of the election had the anti-establishment 5 Stars Movement, led by the inexperienced 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, as the largest party (on 28 per cent).

Of the competing centre-right and centre-left coalitions, those on the right led by Silvio Berlusconi are predicted to get the most votes (35-38 per cent) while the left-wing with the incumbent Democratic Party are expected to be the biggest losers (24-26 per cent). There’s no guarantee that the vote will produce an overwhelming victory, and a recent Demos Pi survey found that the majority of the public would prefer a second vote to the forming of a grand coalition.

If there is a winner, distrust in the status quo is likely to be a key factor in its victory. Previous elections in 2013 led to a long-frozen political standoff, and dissatisfaction with the central government in Rome smoulders. If it is about institutions, Italians trust the Pope more than they trust Parliament or parties: a recent Demos survey found that 77 per cent trust Pope Francis, 19 per cent trust “the State” and only 11 per cent have confidence in Parliament. Asked about “political parties”, that trust slipped to just 5 per cent.

Decades after the 1990s scandal known as “Tangentopoli”, voters are still convinced that corruption is dominating politics: 9 out of 10 Italians think corruption is widespread and 66 per cent think parties themselves are compromised – well above the European average.

Italians are also among the most disenchanted in Europe when it comes to their country’s economic situation, in spite of recent slow signs of recovery. While 2018 has been dubbed the immigration election, going to the polls on Sunday people told The Independent that unemployment ranked alongside border issues as “what concerns me the most”.

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the youngest here are not the most hopeful – it is quite on the contrary. Francesco, 18, has just voted for the first time; his polling station is in the high school he usually attends in Rome. “To be honest, I imagined my first vote would go differently,” he said. “Today, there’s no politician that really represents me, mine is one of the European countries with the highest percentage of ‘NEETS’ (not in education, employment, or training), I’m concerned about youth unemployment and about the conditions of public schools today.”

The needs of young people were far from centre stage during campaigning: as a result, half of all those under 25 are expected not to vote.

We won’t have the final confirmed results of Sunday’s vote until late into Monday morning, but the stage seems set for the anti-establishment parties to take advantage of this mix of opinions. The other populist leaders of the West have sensed this change, with the far-right Northern League leader Matteo Salvini presenting himself as the Italian Marine Le Pen and the alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon flying in to Rome to taste the mood himself.

On the eve of Sunday’s vote, Donald Trump’s former adviser told Corriere Della Sera: “Italians often consider themselves provincial in world politics, but this is not so: you are on the crest of the wave, facing a fundamental test of the power of sovereignty, and this is exemplified by the issue of migrants.” If Italy is going to undergo the kind of “Trumpisation” he envisages, distrust in politics will be its fuel. 

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