Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, which has the best chance of winning Italy’s election on Sunday, wants to boot out 600,000 migrants and pump cash into Italian pocketbooks. An opponent, the Five Star populist party, promises an online canvas of its members every time a major decision arises, in an experimental exercise of hyper-democracy. And the ruling center-left party is tanking, even though Italy’s economy looks rosier than five years ago when it took power.
Italians head to the polls this weekend in Europe’s most closely watched election of the year. And in a bitterly divided campaign — and with more than a few shades of U.S. debates — voters are animated by issues of migration and a nagging sense that Italy’s post-crisis economic recovery has made life better for the richest without touching the citizens below.
The winner will help shape Europe’s direction at a time when the European Union is contending with threats to rule of law in member states Hungary and Poland and negotiating a bitter divorce with Britain. And because Italy is a main gateway for migrants into Europe, the decisions it makes about how to treat those who reach its shores will reverberate throughout the continent.
But if Italians agree they don’t want the status quo, they are split about the best direction for their country, the fourth-largest economy in Europe. Opinion polls suggest the likeliest outcome of Sunday’s election is a Parliament too splintered to form a workable majority, leading to a center-spanning caretaker government or new elections and months of deadlock.
There could also be surprises — such as if the surging far-right Northern League party gets more votes than its more centrist coalition ally, a prospect that could bring to power Euroskeptic leaders who have warned that Islam is taking over Italy.
“In this chaotic situation, the possibility of more chaos is very likely,” said Fabio Bordignon, a professor of political science at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo.
The polls close late: 11 p.m. Rome time, 5 p.m. in Washington. Here are a few hot topics to watch:
Five Star Movement.
Since the last election five years ago, the anti-establishment party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 has become the biggest force in Italy and tops the opinion polls. Yet its members have struggled to transform themselves from swashbuckling outsiders into a group that could plausibly hold power, and they have shown mixed results when they have captured local governments. The final polls before a 15-day blackout period ahead of the election gave them about 28 percent of the vote, well short of the roughly 40 percent needed to capture Parliament. But if they overcome their reluctance to form coalitions and can persuade another party to join forces, they could unsettle establishment leaders across Europe.
More than 620,000 migrants have arrived in the country since 2013, and former prime minister Berlusconi has said that immigration is a “social bomb ready to explode in Italy.” If the election goes Berlusconi’s way, he’ll have the chance to try to defuse the situation. But his plan — to try to deport nearly all of those who have arrived — has come under heavy criticism for being inhumane. The pressure of new migrant arrivals has eased since July, after Interior Minister Marco Minniti struck a deal with local Libyan leaders to halt people-smuggling across the Mediterranean. But anger remains, as evidenced by a shooting rampage against people with dark skin in a central Italian town last month. And the root causes of migration remain unchanged in the Middle East and Africa.
The longtime leader and media magnate pioneered the mixture of entertainment and politics that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. But he was written off as politically dead after he was forced from office in 2011, amid the economic crisis and scandals involving graft and “bunga-bunga” sex parties. (Berlusconi called them “elegant dinners.”) Tax fraud convictions bar him from office for another year. Yet he is a likely kingmaker in post-election dealmaking.
Italy’s economy grew a modest 1.5 percent last year, a major improvement over the crisis years but far from enough to make most voters feel the benefits. Youth unemployment is stuck at a stubborn 35 percent, and overall unemployment is higher than the European average, so many voters are fed up. But the parties leading the polls haven’t offered plans that add up, according to most mainstream economists. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition is promising $1,220 a month to every adult Italian as a universal basic income, for example, without fully explaining how he would pay for it.
Italy sometimes seems to churn through leaders faster than it can come up with new ones. So political instability is nothing new. But with the advent of the Five Star Movement, Italian politics now appears tripolar — and it’s not clear that voters will lean heavily enough for anyone to come up with a workable majority. Even if Italy heads to the polls again in the near future, there’s no reason to believe the dynamics would change.
Far-right Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has a pierced ear and a genial, everyman style. In a political landscape starved of charismatic leaders, he is one of the most gifted. There’s even an outside chance his party will garner more votes than Berlusconi’s, which could put him on top as a candidate for prime minister. If that happens, he would be the first far-right populist to lead a Western European nation since 1945. He’s even more committed than Berlusconi to kicking out migrants. After a former Northern League candidate attacked migrants in Macerata last month, Salvini briefly condemned the violence — then changed the subject to the problems he says migrants bring to Italian society.
The ruling center-left Democratic Party dominated elections for the European Parliament in 2014, but its support has collapsed nearly by half, to 23 percent. Former prime minister Matteo Renzi was beloved by elites but disliked by ordinary Italians for what was seen as an aloof, entitled style. A left-wing faction broke off. Then the right-wing parties and populists took over the worker-friendly policies that were typically the domain of the left, such as lowering the retirement age and offering guaranteed incomes. There’s little expectation Renzi and his allies will have a role in the future government unless it is as a junior partner to Berlusconi.