Italy election: Big gains for populist and far-right parties – but no clear winner

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Italian voters have delivered a hung parliament at the country’s general election, likely meaning there will be weeks of talks in order to form a new government.

However, one thing is clear: populist parties are making big gains amid distrust of the establishment powers. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) is expected to become the single biggest party – if polls are confirmed it will take around 30 per cent of the vote. But a right-wing coalition, spearheaded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is projected to win the most seats in parliament though fall short of the numbers needed for an absolute majority.

One exit poll by Italy’s RAI state TV put the M5S with between 29.5 per cent and 32.5 per cent of Sunday’s vote. Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant party the League (La Lega) each were polling at between 12.5 per cent and 15.5 per cent. They are running as part of a centre-right coalition, which was expected to gather between 33 per cent to 36 per cent of the vote, short of the 40 per cent analysts have said is the minimum needed to secure a majority under Italy’s new electoral law.

Mr Berlusconi – who cannot currently hold public office thanks to a tax fraud conviction – had placed the migrant crisis Italy has faced in recent years at the centre of the campaign he has led.

The ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD), led by another former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, is set to gather between 20 per cent and 23 per cent of the vote, according to the exit poll, with a centre-left coalition gaining 25 to 28 per cent. Along with the exit poll for Mr Berlusconi’s coalition – made up of his own party Forza Italia, the League and the far-right Brothers of Italy – such a result would be a blow to the Italian establishment parties.

“If this is the result, for us it is a defeat and we will move into the opposition,” said Ettore Rosato, leader of the lower chamber of parliament for PD, according to local media.

Mr Berlusconi may yet find his coalition actually reaches 40 per cent of the vote with full results not expected until Monday morning, and Italian exit polls having previously given misleading initial readings. The same could be said for M5S, but it is the sense of distrust in the status quo that is the first clear trend.

The result forecast for the M5S, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, would be a quite a result for a group formed less than a decade ago. The party has made big strides with voters sick of the political norm through its hardline stance on corruption, and it has fed off public resentment about economic hardship across the country with election pledges such as a universal basic income. But the party has also gained a reputation for flip-flopping on issues.

Both the M5S and the League were said to have beaten expectations in the early vote count for the upper chamber of the parliament, the Senate.

Previous elections in 2013 led to a long-frozen political standoff, and dissatisfaction with the central government in Rome smoulders. “The least bad choice is the best,” a middle-aged couple said before entering a polling station in Rome, summing up the mood.

Italians trust the Pope more than they trust parliament or political parties: a recent Demos survey found that 77 per cent of people trust Pope Francis, 19 per cent trust “the State” and only 11 per cent have confidence in parliament. Asked about “political parties”, that trust slipped to just 5 per cent.

Decades after the 1990s scandal known as “Tangentopoli”, voters are still convinced that corruption is dominating politics: nine out of 10 Italians think corruption is widespread, and 66 per cent think parties themselves are compromised – well above the European average.

Italians are also among the most disenchanted in Europe when it comes to their country’s economic situation, in spite of recent slow signs of recovery. While 2018 has been dubbed the immigration election, going to the polls on Sunday people told The Independent that unemployment ranked alongside border issues as “what concerns me the most”.

Unlike elsewhere in Europe, the youngest here are not the most hopeful – it is quite the contrary. Francesco, 18, has just voted for the first time; his polling station is in the high school he usually attends in Rome. “To be honest, I imagined my first vote would go differently,” he said. “Today, there’s no politician that really represents me. Mine is one of the European countries with the highest percentage of ‘Neets’ [not in education, employment or training]. I’m concerned about youth unemployment and about the conditions of public schools today.”

The needs of young people were far from centre stage during campaigning: as a result, half of all those under 25 are expected not to vote. Italy’s Interior Ministry suggested the turnout for the election was around 72 per cent. If that is the final tally it would represent a drop from the 75 per cent of eligible voters who participated in the 2013 election.

During two months of grinding election campaigning, party leaders repeatedly ruled out any post-election tie-ups with rivals. However, Italy has a long history of finding ways to form governments, however unlikely or unstable they might seem. 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.

The biggest worry for many would be a link up between the M5S, the League and the hardline nationalist Brothers of Italy. If the final vote tally reflects the projections that around 50 per cent of the electorate have voted for such populist parties, they would have enough votes to rule. There had also been talk before the vote of the possibility of a coalition between the M5S and the centre-left PD, although that may prove unworkable depending on whether the ruling party would stomach being the junior party in a coalition. 

A prominent deputy from M5S said early projections of the results suggested a “triumph” for the anti-establishment party.

If the numbers are confirmed, “this is a real moment of glory” Alessandro Di Battista said. “Everyone will have to come and talk to us,” he added, referring to negotiations to form a government.

The stage seems set for the anti-establishment parties to take advantage of this mix of opinions. The other populist leaders of the West have sensed this change, with the far-right Northern League leader Matteo Salvini presenting himself as the Italian Marine Le Pen, and the alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon flying in to Rome to taste the mood himself.

On the eve of Sunday’s vote, Donald Trump’s former adviser told Corriere Della Sera: “Italians often consider themselves provincial in world politics, but this is not so: you are on the crest of the wave, facing a fundamental test of the power of sovereignty, and this is exemplified by the issue of migrants.” If Italy is going to undergo the kind of “Trumpisation” he envisages, distrust in politics will be its fuel. 

Additional reporting Chris Stevenson