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Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot as he prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Milan, Italy on Sunday. Photo: Reuters
Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot as he prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in Milan, Italy on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Italians head to polls as populists challenge mainstream

Five Star may emerge as the biggest single partyaccording to surveys before the polling restrictionsthough only Berlusconi's center-right coalition was seen within reach of an outright majority

Rome: Italians are voting on Sunday after a campaign that featured the surprise comeback of media magnate and former premier Silvio Berlusconi and a challenge to mainstream parties by the populist Five Star Movement.

The outcome may not produce a clear winner as polls published before a 17 February blackout showed a hung parliament as the most likely scenario. Voting stations are open from 7am to 11pm, when the first exit polls will be released.

Long lines were reported in voting locations from Milan in the north to Palermo in Sicily, where several stations opened later because several thousand ballots had to be reprinted because of errors. Voter turnout was about 19% at noon, according to the interior ministry.

Five Star may emerge as the biggest single party—according to surveys before the polling restrictions—though only Berlusconi’s center-right coalition was seen within reach of an outright majority. The 81-year-old owner of Italy’s biggest media group has engineered a shock return to the political limelight, but only by joining forces with another populist group, the euroskeptic League, which is challenging his dominance of the Italian right.

A hung parliament would trigger an extended period of horsetrading among the parties. Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, 31, has vowed not to seek a coalition deal, but appealed to rivals to back him if his party wins the most votes.

“Five Star Movement is transforming the political landscape," said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “If the center-right doesn’t get a majority, a lot will depend on whether Five Star opens up to the idea of a coalition."

Last year French President Emmanuel Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte held off the challenge of euroskeptic populists in national elections and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party remained the biggest force in the German parliament despite the rise of the anti-immigrant AfD. Italy’s establishment parties are struggling to match that performance following years of lacklustre growth and widespread concern about immigration.

Italy has lived with political instability since World War II, with 65 governments ruling since that conflict. Paolo Gentiloni of the Democratic Party has been a caretaker prime minister since Matteo Renzi resigned after his referendum to reform the Senate failed in December 2016.

President Sergio Mattarella is due to begin formal discussions with party leaders from early April before picking a candidate he believes can command a majority. The next prime minister will have to win votes of confidence in both houses of parliament.

A government built around either Berlusconi’s alliance or Five Star would risk unsettling financial markets, with concerns over their impact on state finances in a country with huge public debt. Berlusconi and his allies clashed repeatedly during the campaign over who should be premier and over policies from tax cuts to pension reform and the euro.

The prospect of a hung parliament hasn’t scared financial markets in the run-up to the vote. Italy’s benchmark stock index is the best performer of major European markets this year. The yield premium on Italy’s 10-year debt over German bunds could fall to a two-year low of 100 basis points in coming months with a market-friendly result, according to Fabrizio Fiorini, the chief investment officer at UBI Pramerica SGR.

Berlusconi is banned from holding public office until next year because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction. But he says he could play a key role from the sidelines and has flagged European Parliament head Antonio Tajani as his candidate for the premiership.

It’s fundamental that the next government “have a premier that has solid relationships in Europe because Italy must regain the influence it’s lost in the European Union," Berlusconi told Italian daily Il Messaggero in an interview published on Saturday.

Di Maio has unveiled a team of would-be ministers with no government experience and pledged to boost spending on the poor, lower taxes and reduce the public debt—while also overhauling European Union treaties to ease spending rules. He’s backtracked on earlier plans to ditch the single currency, telling Radio 24 on Friday that “euro-exit is not under discussion."

Although both Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini ruled out an alliance during the campaign, the stance could change once the results are in. Salvini himself said in October that if his coalition with Berlusconi didn’t win a majority, he’d call Five Star co-founder Beppe Grillo.

Grillo joined Di Maio at a closing rally Friday in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. Di Maio said Five Star was ready to govern. “The era of opposition has ended."

The governing Democratic Party has seen its support slide over the course of the campaign and its leader, Renzi, told newspaper La Repubblica Italy risks “an extremist government" of Five Star, the League and the far-right Brothers of Italy unless his party comes first.

“Di Maio could change strategy and give up some ministers’ jobs but that would be risky for him because many of his voters don’t want deals with other parties," said Fabio Bordignon, a political science professor at the University of Urbino who has studied the party’s rise. “If he doesn’t get a chance to try to form a government, he’ll exploit that by saying the system is united against Five Star." Bloomberg

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