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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Far-right, populist surge leaves Italy in limbo

No faction won a clear majority in Sunday’s general election, but the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement was by far the highest vote-getter of any single party

5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio said Sunday's general election results were "indescribable". REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi
5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio said Sunday's general election results were "indescribable". REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi

Italy is facing political gridlock after a general election left the country with a likely hung parliament, amid a surge in support for populist and far-right parties.

With no faction managing to win a clear majority, results from Sunday’s vote confirmed that negotiations to form a new government will be long and fraught. After a disastrous showing for the ruling Democratic Party, its leader Matteo Renzi, a former premier, resigned on Monday.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement was by far the highest vote-getter of any single party, as it drew on support from Italians frustrated with the listless economy and fed up of traditional parties.

With the ballot count well advanced on Monday afternoon, the populist 5-Star was on course for 32 per cent of the vote. “It's a great day, despite the rain," its 31-year-old leader Luigi Di Maio told reporters. "Indescribable."

A right-wing coalition, including Matteo Salvini’s Eurosceptic League and ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, together won about 37 per cent of the vote.

But in a major upset, the far-right, anti-immigrant League surpassed Mr Berlusconi’s party, which had been the longtime anchor of the centre-right. Partial results indicated the League captured around 18 per cent of the vote, while Forza Italia collapsed to just 14 per cent.

Mr Salvini, who has pledged to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and tackle the "danger" of Islam, said on Monday he had the "right and duty" to govern Italy.

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It was a disastrous night for the Democratic Party, the main partner in the centre-left government that has ruled Italy since 2013. Mr Renzi had hoped to make a political comeback in 2018 but quit after his party dropped to under 19 per cent as voters punished it for an influx of more than 600,000 migrants over the past four years.

The strong showing for populist, Eurosceptic and right-wing forces in Sunday’s vote is being likened with Brexit and with the election of US President Donald Trump.

"The European Union is having a bad evening," French far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted. The UK’s far-right, pro-Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage also congratulated the 5-Star Movement.

The inconclusive election means parties will now enter into an extended period of horse-trading as they seek to form a new government that can win a confidence vote.

Much of what happens next will depend on what Mr Di Maio decides to do.

According to polling company YouTrend, his 5-Star Movement is on track for 231 seats in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and 115 in the upper house Senate, meaning that it could form a majority with either one of the League, Forza Italia or the Democratic Party.

The 5-Star Movement has always refused to form coalitions with other parties but having become the biggest single party, it has the chance to lead the country for the first time, and Mr Di Maio has already moved to soften the fiery image given by comedian Beppe Grillo, who founded the party.

Given 5-Star’s heated rivalry with the two main forces that have dominated Italian politics for decades — Forza Italia and the Democrats — its most likely ally looks to be the League. Partial results indicated that the two parties together topped the 50 per cent needed to rule Italy.

That alliance, should it happen, has been described as a "nightmare scenario" for the European Union and markets. However, it would delight former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who called that coalition "the ultimate dream."

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During the campaign, Mr Di Maio backed off the early 5-Star policy to push for a referendum to get Italy out of the euro. But 5-Star members, who espouse a range of ideology-defying pro-green, anti-bank views, rail against what they say are excessive EU rules.

The party also proposed a minimum monthly income of up to €780 euros for the poor, helping it draw massive support in the underdeveloped south. By contrast, the League was particularly strong in the wealthier north, its traditional base.

Should 5-Star stick to its old principles and not try to form a coalition, it would leave the path completely free for Mr Salvini.

While before the election one possible outcome had been a grand coalition uniting the centre-right and centre-left, that option now seems less likely given the League's victory over Forza Italia and the utter defeat of the Democrats.

After his electoral flop, Mr Berlusconi is on the ropes which means European Parliament President Antonio Tajani's candidacy as prime minister is also likely dead.

The billionaire, who won his first election in 1994, has returned to the limelight at the age of 81 despite a career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes, but has turned out to be the big loser alongside Mr Renzi.

The election campaign was a gloomy one marred by clashes between far-right and anti-fascist activists, as well as a racist shooting spree by an extreme right sympathiser last month.

Resentment at the hundreds of thousands of migrant arrivals in Italy in recent years fired up the campaign, along with frustration about social inequalities.

It will now be up to President Sergio Mattarella to sound out the political parties to determine who has the best chances of forming a government. Negotiations could take weeks or even months.

If it ends up being impossible to form a government, Italians could go back to the polls as early as this summer.

“It will be very difficult to reach any sort of deal, given the parties are so fragmented and have been at odds on practically every topic,” Luigi Ferrata, public affairs account director at Community Group, told The National. “I see snap elections as a real option if the parties refuse any agreement.”