Centre-left and Berlusconi neck and neck in Italy poll
Voting has ended in Italy's general election, with wildly conflicting projections pointing to a far closer race than initially thought, after a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by a spate of corruption scandals involving all the major parties.
Italy's general election descended into chaos on Monday amid conflicting reports pointing first to a victory for the centre-left alliance of Pier Luigi Bersani and then for Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc.
As voting ended at 3pm on Monday, exit polls for the key Senate race gave the centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani between 36% and 38% of the vote, followed by Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc (30%-32%) and the anti-establishment movement of firebrand comedian Beppe Grillo (17%-19%).
But less than an hour later, early results pointed to yet another spectacular comeback by the “Cavaliere”.
Projections based on around half of all votes cast for the Senate put Berlusconi's coalition in the lead with 31%, followed by the centre-left on 30%. Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement was credited with 24% of votes cast, making it the single largest party in the Senate.
All projections gave the centrist coalition of Mario Monti lagging well behind (8%), suggesting the outgoing prime minister's bloc may not meet a 10% threshold to enter parliament.
If confirmed, the results are likely to lead to fresh elections in the coming months, with no one in a position to form a majority in both houses of parliament.
“There is no other option but to vote again,” said Enrico Letta, vice-president of Bersani's Democratic Party (PD).
Final results for the Senate are expected later in the afternoon. Election officials will then begin counting votes cast for the lower house of parliament.
A complex electoral system, dubbed “porcellum” (or pigsty), means all eyes will be on a handful of hotly contested Senate races, including in Lombardy, Sicily and the Campania region around Naples.
The inconclusive poll follows a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by a spate of corruption scandals involving all the major parties.
The reports fuelled anger among voters burdened by unpopular austerity measures and surging unemployment.
Even by the self-deprecating standards of Italy, the frustration and despair sensed at polling stations appeared to have reached unprecedented levels.
“We are in economic, cultural and moral decline, so it is no surprise our politics go the same way,” said one voter outside Florence's Liceo Machiavelli.
At the next polling station, Sabina Borgone, 41, said politicians had learned nothing during the year-long technocratic government of Mario Monti. “This is a good country for a holiday by the sea,” she said, “but nothing more.”
While there was a general sense among voters that the country was knee deep in trouble, few thought any of the candidates had a solution to Italy's problems.
The widespread loss of faith in politics has boosted Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment movement.
The popular comedian has campaigned throughout the country in a camper van, drawing huge crowds at rallies from Palermo to Trieste. He has urged Italian voters to send all politicians “a casa” (home).
Grillo kept people waiting until midday on Monday before casting his vote in his hometown of Genova. Wearing large sunglasses, he joked that he “couldn't make [his] mind up” about who to vote.
The prospect of more political instability in the eurozone's third-largest economy has caused alarm abroad, where many fear an anti-austerity verdict from voters could spook the markets and revive Europe's debt crisis.
“If no one has a clear majority then we'll be heading back to the polls in six months,” said a UN official who had flown back to Rome for the vote, but declined to be named. “In the meantime, what are we going to tell our European partners? What will Grillo tell them?”