In Depth

Italian elections: who will win?

Berlusconi's centre-right coalition on course for victory as Renzi slumps to third place in polls

Italy goes to the polls this Sunday to elect a new government and prime minister in what’s being described as one of the most unpredictable political contests in decades.

Although the candidate list features some familiar faces in the form of former PMs Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, this year’s election has been characterised by a surge in the populist movement gripping Europe. Much of the campaign rhetoric is focusing on immigration.

Rival demonstrations between a resurgent fascist movement, which has now thrown its support behind allies of Berlusconi, and anti-fascist protesters have seen the political debate devolve from the stage to the streets, the BBC reports, with many injured in violent clashes.

As the prospect of a hard right government looms large over the Republic – a possible outcome described as a “horror film scenario” by Italy’s more moderate politicians – is the country on the brink of a crisis of legitimacy?

Who’s running?

Italian elections have been contested by multi-party coalitions since the mid-1990s when major centre-right and centre-left alliances formed within a year of each other. 

The centre-left coalition is based around the Democratic Party (PD), whose leader, former PM Matteo Renzi, resigned in 2016 after a heavy defeat in a referendum on constitutional reform. Renzi has returned to the helm of the PD in a bid to retake the country’s highest office.

The PD-led alliance also has a strong Europhile bent, featuring pro-EU parties More Europe (Piu Europa) and Italy Europe Together (Italia Europa Insieme).

The centre-right coalition contains four parties: Berlusconi’s Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the nationalist Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), the liberal conservative Us With Italy (Noi con l’Italia) and the controversial Northern League (Lega Nord).

The League, as it’s commonly known, is a Eurosceptic anti-immigration party that has formed alliances with the parties of international far-right figures such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.

This week, the League received the endorsement of CasaPound, a neo-fascist movement named after American poet and fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound, the Daily Telegraph writes.

The wild card in this campaign is undoubtedly the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Formed by comedian Beppe Grillo and led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, Five Star looks set to win the most votes, writes ABC. But due to Italy’s parliamentary structure, it’s unlikely it will be able to form a government on its own. 

The party is mildly Eurosceptic – though not in favour of leaving the EU entirely – and takes a tough stance on immigration, reports Deutsche Welle.

What are the issues?

Without question, immigration is the name of the game in this year’s ballot. 

The Daily Telegraph writes that over the last four years “more than 600,000 refugees and economic migrants have reached Italy in boats from the coast of North Africa”.

In May 2013, only 4% of Italians considered immigration to be one of the two biggest political issues facing the country. By November 2017, the figure was 33%, according to Eurobarometer.

Tensions have been exacerbated by the murder of an 18-year-old Italian woman at the hands of a Nigerian immigrant in Macerata, central Italy, earlier this month.

“The fear among moderates is that outrage over [the woman’s] death is being manipulated and used to boost the fortunes of the hard-Right League, which wants to deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants,” the newspaper writes.

The Local adds that the country’s economic struggles may also be a turning point. “Overall economic output is still nearly 6% lower than before the financial crisis hit in 2008 and Italy is way behind the 2.5% growth recorded by the eurozone last year,” the site reports, adding that “most political parties have prioritised promises of dramatic tax cuts that risk exploding the public deficit and debt”.

Who will win?

Earlier this week, polls suggested that around a third of the electorate remained undecided, reports ABC. However, as election day draws closer, the odds appear to be shortening on a victory for Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-right coalition.

The Times reports that should his party win, the former PM would then have a hand in nominating the new leader (he himself is barred from office due to a fraud conviction). 

The BBC agrees that “the centre-right coalition is likely to emerge the overall winner” - but predicts it will fall short of a majority.

According to The Times, a “widespread mistrust of politicians” has helped transform the fringe Five Star Movement into Italy’s most popular single party, “threatening to deny Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition the 40% of the popular vote it needs for a parliamentary majority”. 

Five Star currently looks set to claim the highest share of the vote of any one party, at a projected 27.67%, but the centre-right coalition - a combination of four parties - is still polling far ahead at 37.06%.

It is highly unlikely Five Star will take power, as it “spurns alliances” and is unlikely to enter into a coalition in the event of a hung parliament, paving the way for either fresh elections, or what has been dubbed a “grand coalition” between the centre-left and centre-right coalitions, says Bloomberg.

A grand coalition would act as a lifeline for Renzi and the centre-left coalition, whose lacklustre performance in opinion polls has seen them slump in popularity in the final three months of the campaign, to just 27.63%.

Renzi has also stated that he will refuse a coalition agreement with Five Star if his own party performs well enough at the polls, further heightening the odds of a hung parliament and the prospect of further elections.

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