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Weary of scandals and austerity, gloomy Italy votes

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2013-02-25

Voting resumes in Italy's general election on Monday, with low turnout expected to underscore a palpable sense of gloom stemming from anger over austerity measures and waning patience with a political elite plagued by scandal.

Polls reopen in Italy on Monday, the second and final day of a general election marked by widespread public resentment of austerity measures and a political class beset by multiple scandals.

A poor turnout on the first day of voting confirmed the general sense of gloom. By 10pm on Sunday, 55% of Italians had cast their ballots, down more than 6% from the previous election.

Polls will close at 3pm on Monday, with the first results expected in the early evening.

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.

Estimates suggest a centre-left alliance led by Pier Luigi Bersani is likely to defeat Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc, with a centrist coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti polling well behind.

Riding a wave of popular anger, an anti-establishment movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo is expected to trounce Monti's party and perhaps even threaten the top two.

At a polling station in Milan on Sunday, Berlusconi was confronted by topless women with “Basta Berlusconi” (Enough of Berlusconi) written on their chests.

Elsewhere, the mood seemed to be one of “basta” politics altogether.

A country in decline

Campaigning for the snap election has been overshadowed by a spate of corruption scandals involving all the major parties.

The reports have 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 on Sunday 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 wild card

Given the widespread loss of faith in politics, Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) is expected to do very well.

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).

The last estimates published before a ban on polls two weeks ago put Grillo's M5S at around 16%, but many sense the real figure could be over 20%.

Antonella Chini, a 79-year-old ceramics worker in Florence, said she was alarmed by its rise.

“I have seen many Grillos throughout my life,” she said. “He embodies a form of defeatism that is typical of many Italians. It is easy to cultivate anger and discontent. The difficult part is to come up with solutions, and Grillo has none.”

Gabriele Agostini, a 50-year-old voter in Mercallo, a small village in the crucial region of Lombardy, said he had a cast a “protest vote” for Beppe Grillo in the lower house of parliament, where he expects Bersani's centre-left coalition to win.

“But I voted for Bersani in the senate race because we need a stable majority,” he added.

Threat of stalemate

A bland but mostly respected politician, Bersani has promised to pursue Monti's budgetary discipline while also doing more for growth and jobs.

While he remains the favourite to win, it is unclear whether he would be able to put together a stable and lasting coalition.

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.

Grillo has called for a referendum on leaving the euro, while Berlusconi has railed against a “German Europe” governed by Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Backed by his unrivalled media power, the Cavaliere has once again dominated the campaign with a pledge to cut taxes and reimburse Italians for a deeply unpopular property tax.

It would take a major upset for him to win this race. But if there is one lesson to be learned from Italian politics over the past two decades, then surely it is that Berlusconi can never be written off.
 

 

Date created : 2013-02-25

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