News analysis

Italy election likely to see nail-biting finish

New poll system disadvantages Democrats as populist parties make extravagant pledges

Italy's political parties have launched their campaigns this week in the run-up to the general election on March 4, regarded as one of the most significant polls in the country.

Chances are high that anti-immigration and far-right populist parties may win enough votes to form Italy's next government.

And if this is not enough, a complicated new electoral system renders all opinion polls and electoral projections unreliable - only a few percentage points are likely to separate the winners from the losers.

According to the latest opinion polls, the centrist Democratic Party of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is slumping, and may not get more than 22 per cent of the vote.

The chief beneficiary of the Democrats' eclipse is none other than Mr Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon driven out of office in 2013 by personal scandals and later convicted of tax fraud.

Mr Berlusconi, 81, is barred from holding public office until the end of next year, but his centre-right party, Forza Italia, is closing in behind the Democrats, with around 19 per cent of the electorate, according to current indications.

Yet the biggest winner in the election may well be the Five Star Movement, a populist party founded by former comedian Beppe Grillo, known for his foul language and vulgar gestures. He also has a list of criminal offences, ranging from manslaughter to tax evasion and libel convictions.

If current projections are correct, the Five Star Movement is slated to become Italy's biggest party, with 27 per cent of the ballots.

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Grillo are vying with each other in making extravagant electoral promises.

Mr Grillo's Five Star Movement claims it will reduce national debt - currently 133 per cent of the economy - to just 90 per cent within two parliamentary terms. But the staggering €750 billion (S$1.2 trillion) required to do so remains a "mere detail" which the party has not addressed.

The anti-establishment movement also guarantees that if elected, it will pay every Italian an income of €1,000 even if he or she does not work.

Not to be undone, Mr Berlusconi promises to introduce a flat tax of 23 per cent and reduce public debt by simply selling state assets, which will supposedly turn Italy from one of Europe's economic laggards into a roaring tiger.

European governments and the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, fear the possibility of a coalition led by the Five Star Movement and including Forza Italia, the Northern League - a far-right group which hopes to win around 12 per cent of the votes - and two smaller right-wing parties.

Such a coalition would not only fail to provide Italy with a predictable administration, but may raise deeper questions about the country's ability to repay its debts and reform its ailing banking sectors.

"The Italian elections of March 4 are a political risk for the European Union," admitted Mr Pierre Moscovici, European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs. His comment was a marked departure from the longstanding EU policy of not commenting on national elections in member states.

Italy's current political class is still pinning its hopes on a revival of the ruling Democratic Party's electoral fortunes, particularly since Prime Minister Gentiloni announced this week that he will stand in the elections. Although his party is languishing in public support, Mr Gentiloni remains Italy's most popular politician.

If the Democrats succeed in riding on their Prime Minister's coat-tails and nudge upwards by a few electoral percentage points, they would be in a strong position to remain in power through a coalition with Mr Berlusconi's party. Though he will still become the kingmaker, that is better than the alternative.

The snag is that the ballots will be held under a new electoral system that combines first-past-the-post balloting and proportional representation. A total of 232 parliamentary deputies are elected by constituencies, and a further 386 MPs are allocated by proportional representation, depending on the nationwide strength of parties.

That not only makes any predictions difficult, but also works against the ruling Democrats, who currently are confident of gaining only 28 constituencies and must therefore win much more of the proportional slate of nationwide MPs in order to lead the formation of Italy's next government.

Either way, one prediction seems safe to make. The elections will conclude with a cliffhanger result that is as nail-biting as the soap operas the soap operas on Mr Berlusconi's TV channels.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2018, with the headline 'Italy election likely to see nail-biting finish'. Subscribe