Italy on course for deadlock as angry voters hit out at the centre
Voting took place in Italy yesterday in an election that could bring political gridlock after a campaign marked by anger over the listless economy, high unemployment and immigration.
Pollsters have predicted that former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his far-right allies will emerge as the largest bloc in parliament but fall short of a majority.
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement looks set to be the biggest single party, feeding off discontent over entrenched corruption and growing poverty, while the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is set to limp home in third place.
Many waited in line for more than an hour to vote, only to then be baffled by confusing ballots and the process to cast them - which for the first time required an anti-fraud check by polling authorities.
"You feel as if you have gone there prepared but it's not that clear," complained Sister Vincenza as she cast her ballot on Rome's Aventine hill, before heading off to Mass.
Some polling stations remained closed in Palermo two hours into election day because the wrong ballots had been delivered and 200,000 new ones had to be reprinted overnight.
Similar ballot glitches were reported elsewhere, forcing the suspension of the vote in two towns in Alessandria.
More than 46 million people were eligible to vote, including Italians abroad who had already mailed in their ballots. While final results are expected this evening, it might take weeks before a government deal is reached.
"Italy is, more than anywhere else in the world right now - even more than Brexit, even more than the Trump revolution in the US - the cutting edge of the sovereignty movement, of people saying we've tried to play by the rules, we've voted in centre-left governments and centre-right governments and none of that has worked," Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, remarked in Rome.
"So now people are looking at another alternative. What they want is power back to the people in a populist revolt."
Mr Bannon is in the Italian capital to observe the outcome of Italy's closely fought election, which he called "the most important thing happening politically in the world right now".
Heavily indebted Italy is the third largest economy in the 19-member eurozone and although investors have been sanguine ahead of the ballot, prolonged political stalemate could reawaken the threat of market instability.
"There was momentum for 5-Star in the final days of the campaign, but it is hard to see any party or coalition getting the 40pc needed to form a government," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, co-founder of YouTrend pollsters.
The campaign has marked the return to frontline politics of Mr Berlusconi.
The 81-year-old was forced to quit as prime minister in 2011 at the height of a sovereign-debt crisis and was widely written off following sex scandals, legal woes and ill health.
A 2013 conviction for tax fraud means that he cannot hold public office and he has put forward Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, as his candidate for prime minister.
Mr Tajani's moderate profile is aimed at allaying fears in Europe about his populist allies, notably the Northern League, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, has promised to deport the 600,000 boat migrants who have arrived in Italy over the past four years.
Some pollsters say the League could overtake Mr Berlsuconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party.
Populist parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, but mainstream parties in Italy have found it especially hard to contain voter anger, with the economy still some 6pc smaller than a decade ago and unemployment stuck at around 11pc.
The 5-Star, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, has been particularly successful at tapping into the disaffection in the underdeveloped south and has promised a monthly universal wage of up to €780 for the poor.
"I'm with Di Maio all the way," Enrico Ursini, a fishmonger in Pomigliano d'Arco near Naples, said.
"They're the new generation. If they win, we'll send Luigi a nice big box of seafood as a present."
Economists say that like many party pledges, Italy can ill afford the universal wage.
But many of the more wild campaign promises are likely to fall by the wayside if there is a hung parliament and a power-sharing accord then has to be hammered out.
Although all party leaders have ruled out any post-election alliances with rivals, Italy has a long history of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemates.
President Sergio Mattarella cannot launch any formal coalition talks until after the new parliament has sat on March 23 and the next prime minister will need to win votes of confidence in both houses before taking office. (© Daily Telegraph, London)