Italy’s general elections on Sunday could see the phoenix-like resurgence of scandal-tainted ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi – or condemn the eurozone’s third-largest economy to becoming nearly ungovernable.
But while Berlusconi’s bloc has a poll lead over the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the incumbent Democratic Party (PD), it may not win overall control of parliament; it doesn’t help that Berlusconi’s bloc is also internally divided, fuelling doubts about its ability to last in government.
“A hung parliament or a narrow parliamentary majority for the centre-right are the two most probable scenarios,” predicted Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, noting that the latest projections had conservatives falling short of an outright win.
With that in mind, many analysts foresee a post-election realignment in which Berlusconi and the centre-left PD would join forces in a re-enactment of the grand coalition that has held sway in Germany since 2013.
Current government leader Paolo Gentiloni – a PD stalwart respected across the political spectrum – or European Parliament President Antonio Tajani – a former Berlusconi spokesman – have been singled out as possible compromise candidates for the premiership.
However, rising anti-establishment sentiment could also usher in a radical M5S-led government that would unsettle financial markets and Italy’s European Union partners. Alternatively, there could be major deadlock, leading to new elections before year’s end.
Opinion polls are not allowed in the last two weeks of campaigning, but before the ban kicked in, pollsters had the Berlusconi bloc near 40 per cent, and the M5S and a PD-led alliance each under 30 per cent.
Those figures are a testimony to Berlusconi’s stunning resilience, after a tax fraud conviction and parliamentary ejection in 2013, and open-heart surgery three years later. He is now courting voters with unrealistic promises to slash taxes and expel 600,000 immigrants.
In his latest guise, the 81-year-old has reinvented himself as a wise, pro-EU statesman – in contrast with the untested M5S.
“I’m like good wine, I get better with age and now I’m perfect,” he quipped this month.
The tycoon-turned-politician’s resurgence has taken place amid a tense campaign marred by political violence, most notably in the central town of Macerata, where a Nazi sympathiser wounded six African migrants in a drive-by shooting spree.
Yet Berlusconi’s revival can’t be fully realised, since his criminal record bars him from holding public office. He is also at odds with far-right ally and League party leader Matteo Salvini on the EU, protectionism and who should be prime minister in case of victory.
With pollsters estimating that about one third of almost 51 million eligible voters are undecided, the election outcome is still wide open, especially in swing southern regions where the M5S could score a historic breakthrough.
“The PD is crumbling, the race now is between us and the centre-right,” M5S prime ministerial candidate Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old university dropout and deputy leader of the lower house of parliament, told RAI state radio on Tuesday.
The preppy-looking Di Maio replaced comedian Beppe Grillo as party leader last year and has steered the protest party towards more moderate positions, for example, by dropping plans to hold a referendum on exiting the eurozone.
“It is time to embrace change, because there is no longer any reason to be afraid of it,” Di Maio said, pledging to exclude from his government team “the same faces you have seen for 20 years.”
To detractors, the party’s main weakness is inexperience – which is exactly what appeals to many of its fans, who are pining for a clean slate in Italy’s often-corrupt politics and are attracted by the party’s promises to introduce minimum income subsidies for the poor.
The PD, meanwhile, is struggling despite some success in office: With voters listing the economy and migration as their biggest concerns, the party can claim credit for reducing boat arrivals from Libya and lifting the country out of a record double-dip recession.
“‘Are you better or worse off compared to four years ago?’ This the question we will pose” to voters, Renzi told journalists earlier this month – a message that seems to be failing to make inroads.
Italy’s economy is still lagging behind its EU peers, and most of the “1 million new jobs” Renzi has touted are of a low-paid, temporary nature, which helps explain why there is not much of a feel-good factor benefiting his party.
In addition to bleeding left-wing votes to Free and Equals, a splinter group formed last year, the PD is being hobbled by Renzi’s popularity crisis, exacerbated by the 2016 referendum defeat on constitutional reforms that led to his resignation.
According to pollsters, the PD has a lot of potential for improvement in its poll standings, if it can win back some of its estranged voters. The results due Monday will show whether a polarizing figure such as Renzi was the right man for that task.