Anti-establishment and far-right triumph in Italy election as count continues

A 'Femen' activist stages a bare chested protest against former Italian Prime Minister and leader of the 'Forza Italia' party, Silvio Berlusconi as he arrives for voting in the general elections at a polling station in Milan, Italy, 4 March 2018. Slogan on women's breast reads: 'Berlusconi you are expired'. [Daniel Del Zennaro/EPA/EFE]

The anti-establishment 5-Star movement and the far-right Northern League could have enough support for a majority after Sunday’s (4 March) general election, although some analysts believe such a nightmare scenario coalition is unlikely.

Italian voters delivered a hung parliament yesterday, flocking to anti-establishment and far-right parties in record numbers and casting the eurozone’s third-largest economy into political gridlock, initial results showed.

If early projections are confirmed, none of Italy’s three main blocs or groups will be able to rule alone and there is little prospect of a return to mainstream, moderate government, giving the European Union a new headache to deal with.

Scenarios now include the creation of a more eurosceptic coalition, which would almost certainly push for a significant jump in welfare spending and challenge EU budget restrictions, or swift new elections to try to break the deadlock.

A rightist alliance including former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia emerged with the biggest bloc of votes, ahead of the anti-system 5-Star Movement, which saw its support soar to became Italy’s largest single party.

The ruling centre-left coalition came third, hurt by voter anger over growing poverty, high unemployment and mass immigration. Gianni Pittella, leader of the S&D group, came only third in his bid to obtain a Senate seat in his constituency of Basilicata.

According to a vote projection released by RAI state TV, based on votes counted as of 0230 GMT on Monday, the 5-Star movement could expect to get 216-236 seats in the 630-seat lower house.

A centre-right coalition was tipped to get 248-268 seats, including 122-132 seats for the far-right League and 94-104 seats for Forza Italia.

In third place behind 5-Star and the centre-right bloc was a centre-left coalition dominated by the ruling Democratic Party (PD), on track to take 107-127 seats.

The full result is not due for many hours and previous elections in Italy have seen wild swings as the count proceeds.

Political stalemate

A prolonged political stalemate could make heavily indebted Italy the focus of market concern in Europe, now that the threat of German instability has receded after the revival on Sunday of a grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The euro dipped in Asia early on Monday, but remained prone to volatility as investors awaited final results.

“Italy is far from having sorted its long-standing problems, and now it will have new ones. Be prepared for long and complex negotiations that will take months,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance was seen taking around 37% in the upper house Senate, but in a bitter personal defeat for the billionaire media magnate, his Forza Italia party was overtaken by its ally, the far-right, anti-immigrant League.

“My first words: THANK YOU,” League leader Matteo Salvini tweeted.

“This is a real moment of glory,” Alessandro Di Battista, a leading 5-Star figure, told reporters as the first results arrived. “Everyone will have to come and talk to us,” he added.

‘Italy ungovernable’

During two months of election campaigning, party leaders repeatedly ruled out any post-election tie-ups with their rivals. However, Italy has a long history of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemate.

5-Star once rejected talk of any power sharing, but it has since modified its position and says it is willing to discuss shared policies but not negotiate over cabinet posts.

Led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, 5-Star was formed in 2009 and has fed off public fury over corruption in the Italian establishment and economic hardship. But some analysts have questioned whether other parties would be able to work with it.

“Di Maio wins, Italy ungovernable,” was the front page headline on the first edition of La Stampa newspaper.

Parliament will meet for the first time on 23 March and formal talks on forming a government are not likely to start until early April.

Pollster Federico Benini, head of the Winpoll agency, said vote projections suggested that 5-Star and the League would be the largest two parties in parliament and would comfortably have enough seats to govern together if they wanted.

They have in the past shared strong anti-euro views. But while the League still says it wants to leave the single currency at the earliest feasible moment, 5-Star says the time for quitting the euro has passed.

Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, 5-Star has sought to allay fears in EU capitals in recent months over its policies, dropping some of its more radical proposals, like leaving NATO, and promising to be business-friendly if they win power.

The 5-Star’s programme includes plans for “drastic” cuts to corporate taxes, slashing red tape and guaranteeing a minimum monthly income of up to €780 euros for the poor.

This so-called “Universal Wage” has helped the party draw massive support in the underdeveloped south, with pollsters predicting the 5-Star could sweep most first-past-the-post seats in regions below Rome.

By contrast, Berlusconi and his far-right, populist allies were expected to win the majority of seats in the wealthier north, with the centre-left squeezed into a narrow stretch of territory across central Italy, including Tuscany.

Populist parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis. Italy’s mainstream parties have found it especially hard to contain voter anger, with the economy still 6% smaller than a decade ago and unemployment stuck at about 11%.

Pure populism

The boost for far-right and populist parties has drawn comparisons to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the rise of US President Donald Trump.

“The European Union is going to have a bad night,” Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, tweeted.

“Everyone is going to have to come and speak to us,” Alessandro Di Battista, a leading member of 5-Star, told reporters at the group’s Rome rally.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon – the man who helped Trump ride a populist wave to power – characterised the election as “pure populism”.

“The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump,” Bannon, who was visiting Italy for the election, told the New York Times.

Bannon called a possible post-election deal between the Five Star Movement and the League “the ultimate dream”.

Grand coalition?

If no grouping wins an overall majority, analysts say one scenario could be a grand coalition between the ruling centre-left Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – a prospect that would reassure investors.

Berlusconi, who won his first election in 1994, has returned to the limelight at the age of 81 despite a career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes.

The billionaire was ambushed as he cast his vote in Milan by a topless woman from the Femen activist group who had “Berlusconi, you have expired” scrawled across her torso.

In the event of a stalemate, President Sergio Mattarella will have the key role of choosing a prime ministerial nominee who could command a majority in parliament but negotiations could take weeks or even months.

“The verdict in Italy is always the same: the country is in constant instability. Being ungovernable has become endemic,” said Claudio Tito, columnist for La Repubblica.

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