Italy voted yesterday in one of the most unpredictable elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.
“I am pessimistic. Nothing will change,” said Luciana Li Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues today.
“The usual thieves will be in government.”
Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters said they thought the new administration would not last long, just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public debt.
The election is being closely watched by investors whose memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario Monti.
“I’m not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems,” said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old building tradesman in Milan.
Underlining his disillusion with the established parties, he voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
An iconoclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Mr Grillo has screamed himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians that have channelled the anger of Italians, especially a frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.
“He’s the only real new element in a political landscape,” said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in Palermo.
Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against Mr Monti’s painful austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.
A weak government could usher in new instability in the eurozone’s third largest economy and cause another crisis of confidence in the European Union’s single currency.
Media tycoon Mr Berlusconi, displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76, has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by halving the gap between his party and Mr Bersani.
“I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that we will again have the problem of ungovernability” said Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her family name.
Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: “I am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it’s the only way to show how sick we are with the old parties.”
Full official election results are expected by early tomorrow.
Several bare-breasted women protested against Mr Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.
The four-time premier, known for off-colour jokes and a constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during “bunga bunga” parties at his villa.
Most experts expect a coalition between Mr Bersani and Mr Monti to form the next administration, but whatever government emerges, it will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalise one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.
The widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians struggling to make ends meet, has left deep scars.
“It’s our fault, Italian citizens. It’s our closed mentality. We’re just not Europeans,” said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.
“We’re all about getting favours when we study, getting a protected job when we work,” she said. “That’s the way we are and we can only be represented by people like that as well.”