Populists, far-right eye gains in Italian election


Rome (AFP)

Italian populist and far-right parties have their eye on making major gains in Sunday's election, spooking investors and European capitals after a campaign dominated by fears about immigration and the economy.

Rival parties held their final rallies on Friday as no campaigning was allowed on Saturday, at the end of a bitter race marred by clashes between far-right and anti-fascist activists.

The result could end up in a draw between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition and the ruling centre-left Democratic Party.

Many Italians are cynical about promises made by squabbling politicians and confused, also because a new electoral law makes the outcome hard to predict and increases the chances of a stalemate.

"Personally, I see a lot of confusion, a lot of disorientation. And then a lot of disgust, to be honest, towards politics, politicians," said Giuseppe, a resident of Florence -- the hometown of Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi.

Franco Bianchi, another Florentine, said: "This campaign has lacked clarity. There are manifestos that, I think, are impossible to realise."

One of the most remarkable features of the election has been the return to the political limelight of the 81-year-old Berlusconi despite a career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes.

While he cannot hold office because of a tax fraud conviction but is still hoping to play a leading role and has put forward European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his prime ministerial nominee.

Berlusconi's plans, however, face a challenge from his ambitious coalition partner, League leader Matteo Salvini, whose anti-immigration and eurosceptic rhetoric has fired up the campaign.

- 'Pure populism' -

Italy's election "epitomises everything, it is pure populism," former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who harnessed the populist insurgency that propelled US President Donald Trump to power, said in an interview with the New York Times.

Bannon, who is visiting Italy as part of a European tour, told the paper: "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 called a coalition between the Five Star Movement and the League the "ultimate dream".

Salvini could head the government if the coalition wins and if his party gets more votes than Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy).

"From Monday, the League will govern this country," Salvini told supporters at his final campaign rally in Milan on Friday.

The right-wing alliance has promised to deport some 600,000 irregular migrants -- a proposal dismissed by the government as unfeasible.

- Possible scenarios -

Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi told a final campaign event in his native Florence that only a vote for his party would prevent Salvini from taking power.

"The Democratic Party is the only serious political force that can bring concrete results," Chiara Serdone, a 70-year-old retired railway company employee, told AFP at the rally.

If no party wins an overall majority, one scenario outlined by analysts could be a grand coalition between the Democratic Party and Forza Italia.

Another possibility could be a temporary government shaped by President Sergio Mattarella, whose role is normally largely ceremonial, and eventually new elections.

The last polls -- issued on February 16 before a pre-election ban came into force -- showed Berlusconi's four-party coalition in the lead with 37 percent, including 17 percent for Forza Italia and 13 percent for the League.

The Five Star Movement garnered 28 percent of voting intentions while the main centre-left coalition scored 27 percent, including 23 percent for the Democratic Party.

Experts estimate a coalition would have to win at least 40 percent of the vote to win an overall majority.

- 'Era of government begins' -

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement has ruled out any post-election deals, which it rejects as old-style politicking.

Founded in 2009, the Five Star Movement has drawn support from Italians disillusioned with traditional parties.

Thousands of Five Star supporters held their final rally at Piazza del Popolo in central Rome on Friday.

Leader Luigi Di Maio promised to slash politicians' salaries and perks and root out corruption, telling the crowd: "Tonight the era of opposition finishes, and the era of Five Star Movement government begins!"