Italians to vote but no end in sight for political tensions
By FRANCES D'EMILIO
Mar. 02, 2018
ROME (AP) — Italy's election campaign reads much like a police blotter, chronicling a country whose politics lately have been increasingly nasty, divisive and even violent.
A young man knifed while affixing posters for a far-left party. A politician for a pro-fascism party beaten up on the street. A candidate for premier spat upon and shoved while stumping for her far-right party. Protests and counter-protests, in the streets from north to south.
The national vote this Sunday to determine who'll govern Italy appears unlikely to bring much relief. Prospects are high for weeks, even months, of more political tensions after the vote, with backroom party maneuvering quite possibly producing a crisis-prone, short-lived government with limited chances of making headway on Italy's economic and social issues.
Some fear an even more dismal outcome.
Sunday's vote "will bring Italy in line with the worst tendencies in contemporary European politics," predicted Cornell University sociology professor Mabel Berezin, who studies populism and fascism in Europe.
Noting a rise in xenophobia and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, Berezin said the main contenders in Italy's election include parties that have supported anti-European, anti-immigration and populist positions.
Over the last few years, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, many fleeing poverty in Africa, after rescue at sea from smugglers' boats, coupled with Italy's own slow economic recovery, makes for an extremely volatile situation, Berezin said.
Italy is also feeling the effects of its "legacy of fascism," which includes small political parties with neo-fascist roots in the decades following the demise of Benito Mussolini's dictatorship in World War II, the professor added.
The extreme far-right Forza Nuova, whose leader unabashedly describes himself as fascist, is among the smaller parties running candidates.
If opinion polls prove accurate, voters won't reward any one party or coalition with enough votes to yield the parliamentary majority needed to sustain a viable government.
Italian law forbids publishing opinion poll results in the last 15 days before an election. Earlier polls pointed to a hung legislature, split into three political blocs, each purportedly distrustful of allying with opponents in a government coalition.
"However the elections go, the situation will be opaque and fragile, but the market is used to seeing an unstable Italy," limiting the danger to Italy's sovereign bonds, said political scientist Roberto D'Alimonte, a Rome-based LUISS university professor.
Leading in opinion polls has been the populist 5-Star Movement. But because the 5-Stars deny they're a political party, their 31-year-old candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, nixes any entering into a postelection coalition government with established parties.
Financial markets appear not to be even considering the possibility that 5-Stars will get to run the national government, D'Alimonte said, noting the group only recently backed off a call for a referendum to pull Italy out of the shared euro currency.
If anyone stands a chance of winning an absolute majority, analysts concur, it's the coalition anchored by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia Party and the right-wing, virulently anti-migrant League. Based in Italy's more affluent north, the League is led by Matteo Salvini, who hopes his party will outdraw Forza and position him for the premiership.
A smaller campaign partner is Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots. Despite its name, it boasts the only female candidate for premier, Giorgia Meloni.
Because of a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi himself can't hold public office. But as a three-time premier, his face is a familiar one.
The 81-year-old billionaire recently went lobbying in Brussels to convince European Union leaders he is a dependable pro-Europe ally. He reluctantly resigned as premier in 2011 after financial markets lost faith he could keep Italy's sovereign debt crisis from endangering the eurozone.
Berlusconi has also been unofficially promoting European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as the "right" person to be premier. Tajani previously served as Berlusconi's spokesman in the 1990s.
London-based analyst Wolfango Piccoli said if Salvini prevails in his bid to get the League's first premiership, that would be an "ugly" scenario in what he called "the good, the bad and the ugly" postelection outcomes.
Two of Salvini's campaign vows are undoing unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age in the rapidly aging country and enacting a flat, 15-percent tax, a drastic drop from current income tax rates.
The impact of such measures on Italy's public debt — its 132 percent debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is the highest in the EU after Greece's — could be considerable.
This week, Salvini received an offer of support from extreme-right leader Stefano Di Simone, who is betting that his CasaPound party will ride the trend of a rising far-right in Europe and clinch the 3 percent of votes required to enter the Italian Parliament.
Yet another postelection scenario is a "grand coalition," including former Premier Matteo Renzi's center-left Democrats, Berlusconi's Forza Italia and small centrist parties.
"For Europe and Italy, this will be the least worst solution," D'Alimonte said.
But if any grand coalition becomes too large, the result could be "policy paralysis" in a government "prone to crisis" and with a limited life span, in Piccoli's view.
Renzi's Democrats have steadily slipped in opinion polls, after more left-leaning figures, including former Communists, bolted from the party he has been steering toward the center.
How the Italian election plays out might well depend on the biggest bloc in the opinion polls: those saying they're undecided who will get their vote or if they'll even vote at all, along with those who say they'll boycott the vote.
D'Alimonte estimates there are up to 9 million Italians "we don't know if they'll go to vote, and if they go, whom they will vote for."
In Italy, there are 46.6 million people eligible to vote for the lower Chamber of Deputies, and 42.9 million for the Senate. Voters must be at least 18 to cast ballots for the Chamber and at least 25 to vote for the Senate.
The Interior Ministry says among Italians living abroad, nearly 4.2 million are eligible to vote for the lower chamber and 3.8 million of them can also vote for the Senate.
Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio