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Europe

Italy heads to polls in landmark elections

© AFP

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2013-02-24

Italians went to the polls on Sunday in a crucial general election, as financial markets held their breath amid fears of an uncertain outcome for the country stuck in deep recession. Voting ends on Monday with official results expected Tuesday.

Italians went to the polls on Sunday to cast their ballot in the country’s general election as financial markets watched with bated breath amid concerns over whether the vote will produce a strong enough government to help lead Italy out of crisis.

Some of the first people to cast their ballots expressed fears that the country could find itself at a political stalemate if there is no clear winner, leading to a tenuous coalition government.

“I think we will have to go to elections again ... I expect instability for the next two years,” said Vincenzo D’Ouria, voting in Milan.

Italy's complex 'pigsty' electoral law

Italy's current electoral law is so complex and cumbersome it has been dubbed "porcellum", or pigsty, by the person who wrote it. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, has 630 seats, while the Senate has 315 (plus four senators appointed for life). All elected seats are up for grabs on February 24-5. Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions. Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies, guaranteeing it has at least 340 of the 630 seats. "Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate, but on a regional basis, making it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.

Italians began voting at 8am (0700 GMT). Polling booths will remain open until 10pm on Sunday and open again between 7am and 3pm on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.

With the eurozone debt crisis far from over, the election is being followed closely by financial markets, still jittery after the dire situation that brought technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti to power more than a year ago.

Rising early Sunday morning, Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in a Milan school. His centrist bloc would only enter a future government as a junior partner of a bigger party.

Final polls published two weeks ago showed centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani with a 5-point lead, but analysts disagree about whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can make the economic reforms Italy needs.

Bersani is now thought to be just a few points ahead of centre-right rival Silvio Berlusconi, who has served as prime minister four times. In a bid to revive his career in Italian politics, Berlusconi has promised tax refunds and staged a media blitz in an attempt to win back voters.

A huge final rally by anti-establishment-comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo on Friday highlighted public anger at traditional parties.

Grillo’s 5-Star movement, made up of political new-comers, is in third place in its first general election, polls suggest, and popular support from voters across the political spectrum has increased uncertainty about the outcome.

“Italians want change, but you cannot achieve that with Grillo. They are far too inexperienced for the Italian parliamentary machine,” said Cristina Rossi, 40, a civil engineer who was on her way to vote for Bersani’s Democratic Party in Milan.

“I fear the outcome will be a weak government, but maybe this is just a necessary transition to be able, in one or two years, to chose someone who can really govern Italy.”

Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, is stuck in deep recession, struggling under a public debt burden second only to Greece’s in the 17-member currency bloc.

Berlusconi breaks campaign silence

Berlusconi dominated headlines on Sunday after he broke a rule restricting politicians from campaigning the day before voting begins.

Speaking at a news conference at his football club AC Milan’s training ground, Berlusconi told reporters that Italy’s magistrates were “more dangerous than the Sicilian mafia” and had invented allegations he had held sex parties in order to discredit him.

The 76-year-old billionaire, who is appealing a jail sentence for tax fraud and is on trial accused of having sex with an underage prostitute, was criticised by his rivals for making a political statement during a ban on campaigning.

While the centre left is still expected to gain control of the lower house, thanks to rules that guarantee a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally, a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate.

Seats in the upper house are awarded on a region-by-region basis, meaning that support in key areas can decisively influence the overall result.

Pollsters still believe the most likely outcome is a centre-left government headed by Bersani and possibly backed by Monti.

But Berlusconi and Grillo’s tireless campaign efforts have left the election wide open. Surveys showed that up to 5 million voters will make up their minds at the last minute.

The Interior Ministry urged some 47 million eligible voters in Italy not to let bad weather keep them indoors and away from polling stations, and said it was prepared to handle snowy conditions in some northern regions to ensure everyone had a chance to vote.

Economic crisis

Whatever government emerges from the vote will have the task of pulling Italy out of its longest recession for 20 years and reviving an economy largely stagnant for two decades.

The main danger for Italy and the euro zone is a weak government incapable of taking firm action, which would rattle investors and could ignite a new debt crisis.

Monti replaced Berlusconi in November 2011 after Italy came close to Greek-style financial meltdown while the centre-right government was embroiled in scandals.

The former European Commissioner launched a tough programme of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reforms which won widespread international backing and helped restore Italy’s credibility abroad after the scandals of the Berlusconi era.

Italy’s borrowing costs have since fallen sharply after the European Central Bank pledged it was prepared to support countries undertaking reforms by buying unlimited quantities of their bonds on the markets.

But austerity measures have fuelled anger among Italians struggling with rising unemployment and shrinking disposable incomes.
 

Date created : 2013-02-24

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