Italy: seeking a path out of gridlock

Voters go to the polls on Sunday after an election campaign marked by deep anger at the country’s situation

As Italian voters go to the polls, surveys suggest the 82-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could emerge as kingmaker. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

As Italian voters go to the polls, surveys suggest the 82-year-old former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could emerge as kingmaker. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

 

Having had 40 prime ministers and more than 60 governments since the second World War, Italians have learned not to expect their elections to deliver stability. That pattern may be maintained when the country’s voters go to the polls tomorrow in an election that surveys suggest could produce another inconclusive result. But delicately-poised parliamentary numbers will not mask what is already the story of the election: Italy is moving to the right.

The last polls published before a pre-election gag rule came into effect on February 17th suggest the only group with any chance of winning a majority is a right-wing coalition built around the 82-year-old Silvio Berlusconi. The four-time prime minister’s Forza Italia party has aligned itself with the anti-migrant Northern League and the nationalist Brothers of Italy, with all three parties agreeing that the one with the biggest share of the vote can pick the next premier. Berlusconi, a clownish figure who almost bankrupted Italy, is barred from holding public office until 2019 becaues of a tax fraud conviction, but in any right-wing coalition he would wield significant power behind the scenes.

However, the most likely outcome of the election is a stalemate that would leave the right-wing bloc, the ruling centre-left Democratic Party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement all unable to form a majority. That would probably lead to a grand coalition between Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, leaving the incumbent prime minister Paolo Gentiloni in office.

Anger was the theme of the campaign. The country’s economy may be growing after its longest postwar recesssion but a third of under-25s are unemployed, 8.4 million Italians are living in poverty and the exodus of the well-educated continues. A sclerotic elite has naturally taken the blame. And then there’s migration. Italy has absorbed more than 600,000 migrants over the last four years and many Italians say they feel overwhelmed by the influx and abandoned by the rest of Europe. The chief beneficiaries have been on the populist right: Forza Italia, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement have all been loudly anti-immigrant. Five Star, which is expected to emerge as the largest party, wants to pull Italy out of the euro zone.

In common with Social Democratic parties across Europe, the Democratic Party is losing ground. The party, led by the unpopular former prime minister Matteo Renzi, has been quietly effective in government, yet it has lost half its support since 2014 and has struggled to impose itself on the campaign. Perhaps its greatest humiliation is that its best hope of returning to government may rest on support from Berlusconi – the man whose legacy of mismanagement it has been working hard to overcome.

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