Italian election too close to call as campaigns end

Romans cycle past posters for Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party promising refunds of a property tax. Below right: Outsider Beppe Grillo, a comedian. Picture: AP
Romans cycle past posters for Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party promising refunds of a property tax. Below right: Outsider Beppe Grillo, a comedian. Picture: AP
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THE Italian election campaign drew to a close yesterday with analysts unable to predict who would win and some warning of post-election chaos if no clear victor emerged.

Party leaders held their final rallies yesterday before a campaigning ban takes effect today and voters head to the polls tomorrow and Monday.

“This vote is not at all certain. One percentage point either way could lead to chaos or a clear winner,” said one psephologist who asked not to be named because of a ban on opinion polls in the fortnight before voting.

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of Italy’s centre-left coalition, has long been favourite to become the next prime minister. But his advisers have been warning that voters may not follow the script. Mr Bersani is thought to be just a few points ahead of former premier Silvio Berlusconi.

That has alarmed European governments and financial markets, which were banking on Mr Bersani forming a coalition with outgoing premier Mario Monti.

Mr Monti tried his best to jump-start the economy when he took over from Mr Berlusconi in November 2011. But he been unable to prevent the eurozone’s third largest economy posting a sixth consecutive quarter of contraction, its longest recession for 20 years. Italy’s public debt, the second highest in the eurozone after Greece’s, is continuing to climb.

Last night analysts warned that Mr Bersani and Mr Monti may at best scrape together a fragile coalition unable to hold its own in parliament – a stalemate that could herald new elections and drag Europe towards further financial chaos.

Mr Berlusconi has bounced back from apparent retirement with a blizzard of TV appearances and questionable promises including the handing back, in cash, of a hated property tax imposed by Mr Monti to help balance the books.

But despite polls showing a surge, the AC Milan owner has slipped up in the final days of the campaign, drawing fierce criticism for making lewd remarks to a woman during a speech and appearing to condone bribery.

Among those warning yesterday that the result could lead to turmoil was former economy minister Giulio Tremonti, who said the vote would produce a weak, unstable and probably short-lived government. Mr Tremonti, who is leading a small party of his own, said that even if Mr Bersani won a majority, it would be too small and fragile to produce a stable coalition.

The main threat to Mr Bersani’s hopes of a strong majority is the slumping popularity of Mr Monti, whose votes were set to give the centre-left a lifeline in the Senate. Mr Monti has joined the mudslinging, calling Mr Berlusconi a “scoundrel” and even taking potshots at Mr Bersani, calling his coalition “the reincarnation of the Communist Party”.

Although polling was officially banned over a week before the election, unofficial polls are being circulated which suggest Mr Monti’s lacklustre centrist campaign could attract as little as 10 per cent, just above the 8 per cent required to win seats

“If Monti goes below 8 per cent in the senate in too many regions, it is a bad scenario,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of politics in Rome. “If he doesn’t make it in big regions he will lose five seats and put the idea of a Bersani-Monti coalition in jeopardy.”

While Mr Berlusconi has squeezed Mr Bersani, comic Beppe Grillo is gaining support with his “Tsunami” tour drawing crowds to hear his attacks on the political class. Yesterday he was in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni, the rallying ground of the Left, after drawing bigger crowds in Milan than Mr Bersani. Mr Grillo could yet win 20 per cent of votes. His manifesto ranges from using military spending to feed the jobless to freezing interest rate payments on Italian debt.