ROME – Italians voted Sunday in one of the country’s most uncertain elections ever, marked by a far-right and populist surge, anti-immigration tub-thumping and a leading role for comeback king Silvio Berlusconi.
The last polls carried out before the vote suggested that a right-wing coalition led by Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party will pick up the most votes — roughly 37 percent.
The 81-year-old media mogul’s four-party group is bolstered by two resurgent far-right forces — the League and Brothers of Italy — which have capitalized on fears over the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have arrived by boat from Libya since 2013.
Immigration — a key factor in recent elections in Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands — was thrust into heart of Italy’s election campaign by the brutal killing of a teenage recovering drug addict blamed on Nigerian immigrants.
The killing prompted a racist “revenge” gun rampage by far-right sympathizer Luca Traini, who shot and wounded six Africans.
Berlusconi and League leader Matteo Salvini have promised to expel “600,000 illegals” if they win power — a proposal judged unfeasible by the center-left government.
The surge in right-wing and populist parties has drawn comparisons to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Former White House adviser Steve Bannon — the man who helped Trump ride a populist wave to power — told the Italian press that a hookup between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration League was “the ultimate dream.
“The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump,” said Bannon, who was in Rome on Sunday.
“Italy’s election epitomizes everything, it is pure populism,” he said.
Berlusconi has returned to the limelight despite a political career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes.
The billionaire tycoon was ambushed as he cast his vote in Milan by a topless woman from the Femen activist group who had “Berlusconi, you have expired” scrawled across her torso.
Berlusconi faces opposition from his ambitious coalition partner Salvini, who has said he should be nominated prime minister if his party comes ahead of Forza Italia and their coalition wins a majority.
Despite the big gains enjoyed by the far right, polls indicate that the likeliest result is a stalemate between the M5S, Berlusconi’s coalition and the centre-left grouping led by the ruling Democratic Party (PD).
The M5S follows the right wing on 28 percent, while the center left are lagging behind on 27 percent and risk being relegated to the opposition.
However under a new electoral law being tried out for the first time, any grouping would need at least 40 percent of the vote to command an overall majority of seats in both chambers of parliament.
If no grouping wins an overall majority, analysts say one scenario could be a grand coalition between the PD and Forza Italia — a prospect that would reassure investors but risks spreading more cynicism and emboldening populists and the far right.
There was concern ahead of the vote that a lackluster campaign and a confusing political landscape could push turnout down to a record low.
The interior ministry put nationwide turnout at 58.4 percent at 1800 GMT four hours before polls were to close.
The national turnout in the last general election in 2013 was 75 percent.
“This election campaign has been pretty squalid, including from the Democratic Party (PD), who I voted for,” 24-year-old barber Mirko Canali told AFP after casting his vote in Rome.
He said he knew many other young people who, fed up with high youth unemployment, had decided to support the M5S.
“They’re pissed off, can’t bear (PD leader Matteo) Renzi anymore and maybe they’re right,” Canali said.
The M5S is hoping to tap into that anger and grab enough votes to at least steal a march on Berlusconi’s group, with whom the M5S is running neck and neck in southern Italy.
“I’m hoping for change, for new faces,” said Davide Benedetto, 30, after casting his vote in Rome.
“I think that the right will win, but it’s all people that we’ve seen before, and they’ve never done us any good. It’s impossible to know whether change will be good or bad, but at least it will be a change.”
Polls close at 2200 GMT, with exit polls expected soon afterward, followed by early results.