Europe Italy election: prospects high for more political tension

Italy election: prospects high for more political tension

The League party’s candidate premier, Matteo Salvini, shakes hands with sympathizers during an electoral meeting in view of March 4 Italy’s general elections, in Rome, Thursday, March 1, 2018. Two of Salvini’s campaign vows are undoing unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age in the rapidly aging country and enacting a flat, 15-percent tax, a drastic drop from income tax rates that can surpass 40-percent rate.

Italy’s soon-to-end election campaign reads much like a police blotter, chronicling a country whose politics lately have been increasingly nasty, divisive and even violent.

A young man knifed while affixing posters for a far-left party. A politician for a pro-fascism party beaten up on a street. A candidate for premier spat upon and shoved while stumping for her far-right party. Protests and counter-protests, in the streets from north to south.

The vote this Sunday to determine who’ll govern the nation appears unlikely to bring much relief. Prospects are high for weeks, even months, of more political tension, with backroom party maneuvering quite possibly producing a crisis-prone, short-lived government with limited chances of making much headway on Italy’s economic and social issues.

Some fear an even more dismal outcome.

The March 4 vote “will bring Italy in line with the worst tendencies in contemporary European politics,” predicted Cornell University sociology professor Mabel Berezin, who studies populism and fascism in Europe. In written comments this week, she referred to a rise in xenophobia and nationalism in parts of central and eastern Europe.

Berezin noted in a follow-up phone interview that the main contenders in Italy’s election include parties which have supported anti-European, anti-immigration and populist positions.

Over the last few years, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, many fleeing poverty in Africa, after rescue at sea from smugglers’ boats, coupled with Italy’s own slow economic recovery, makes for an extremely volatile situation, Berezin said.

What’s more, Italy is feeling the effects of its “legacy of fascism,” which includes small political parties with neo-fascist roots in the decades following the demise of Benito Mussolini’s dictatorship in World War II, the professor added.

The extreme far-right Forza Nuova, whose leader unabashedly describes himself as fascist, is among the smaller parties running candidates.

If opinion polls prove accurate, voters won’t reward any one party or coalition with enough votes to yield the parliamentary majority needed to sustain a viable government.

Italian law forbids publishing opinion poll results in the last 15 days before an election. Earlier polls point to a hung legislature, split into three political blocs, each purportedly distrustful of allying with opponents in any government coalition of convenience.

“However the elections go, the situation will be opaque and fragile, but the market is used to seeing an unstable Italy,” limiting the danger that the spread on sovereign bonds might rise alarmingly, said political scientist Roberto D’Alimonte, a Rome-based LUISS university professor.

Leading in opinion polls has been the populist 5-Star Movement. But because the 5-Stars deny they’re a political party, their candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old former soccer stadium steward, nixes any entering into a post-election coalition government with established parties.

Financial markets appear not to be even considering the possibility of national power for the Movement, which recently backed off a call for a referendum to pull Italy out of the single-currency eurozone, D’Alimonte said in a recent chat with the foreign media in Rome.

If anyone stands a chance of winning an absolute majority, analysts concur, it’s the campaign coalition anchored by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia Party and the right-wing, virulently anti-migrant League. Based in the more affluent north, the League is led by Matteo Salvini, who hopes his party will outdraw Forza and position him for the premiership. A smaller campaign partner is Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots. Despite its name, it boasts the only female candidate for premier, Giorgia Meloni.

Because of a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi can’t hold public office. But as a three-time premier, his face is a familiar one among European and international leaders.

The 81-year-old billionaire recently went lobbying in Brussels to convince European Union leaders he is a dependable pro-Europe ally. He reluctantly resigned as premier in 2011 after financial markets lost faith he could keep Italy’s sovereign debt crisis from endangering the eurozone.

Berlusconi has also been unofficially promoting European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as the “right” person to be premier. Tajani served as Berlusconi’s spokesman when the media mogul first held the premiership in 1994.

London-based analyst Wolfango Piccoli said that should Salvini prevail in his bid to get the League’s first premiership, that would be an “ugly” scenario in what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly” post-election outcomes.

Two of Salvini’s campaign vows are undoing unpopular pension reforms that raised the retirement age in the rapidly aging country and enacting a flat, 15-percent tax, a drastic drop from income tax rates that can surpass a 40-percent rate.

The impact of such measures on Italy’s public debt — its 132 percent debt-to-gross domestic product ratio is the highest in the EU after Greece’s — could be considerable.

This week, Salvini received an offer of support from extreme-right leader Stefano Di Simone, who is betting his CasaPound party will ride the trend of a rising far-right in Europe and clinch the 3 percent of votes threshold required to enter the Italian Parliament.

Yet another post-election scenario is a “grand coalition,” including former Premier Matteo Renzi’s Democrats, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and small centrist parties.

“For Europe and Italy this will be the least worst solution,” D’Alimonte said.

But if any grand coalition becomes, well, too, large, the result could be “policy paralysis” in a government “prone to crisis” and with a limited life span, in Piccoli’s view.

Renzi’s Democrats have steadily slipped in opinion polls, after more left-leaning figures, including former Communists, bolted from the party he has been steering ever more to the center.

In 2016, then-Premier Renzi called for a referendum on his ambitious reforms agenda, including a constitutional change to reduce the Senate’s role to practically a consultative body, with the aim of streamlining the legislative process. Voters gave an overwhelmingly thumbs-down and Renzi resigned. This election finds Renzi running for a seat in the Senate, which lives on.

How the election plays out might well depend on the biggest bloc in the opinion polls: those saying they’re undecided who will get their vote or if they’ll even vote at all, along with those who say they’ll boycott the vote. D’Alimonte estimates there are up to 9 million Italians “we don’t know if they’ll go to vote, and if they go, whom they will vote for.”

There are 46.6 million Italians eligible to vote for the lower Chamber of Deputies, and 42.9 million for the Senate. Voters must be 18 or older to cast ballots for the Chamber and 25 or older to vote for the Senate.

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