ROME • Italian populist and far-right parties have their eye on making major gains in today's election, spooking investors and European capitals after a campaign dominated by fears about immigration and the economy.
No campaigning was allowed yesterday, the eve of the closely watched poll. Rival parties held their final rallies on Friday, at the end of a bitter race marred by clashes between far-right and anti-fascist activists.
The outcome is far from certain and could end up in a draw between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Mr Luigi Di Maio, the rightwing coalition of three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
Mr Berlusconi cannot himself hold office because of a tax fraud conviction but is still hoping to play a leading role and has put forward European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his prime ministerial nominee.
Mr Berlusconi's plans, however, face a challenge from his ambitious coalition partner, League leader Matteo Salvini, whose anti-immigration and eurosceptic rhetoric has fired up the campaign.
Italy's election "epitomises everything, it is pure populism", former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who harnessed the populist insurgency that propelled United States President Donald Trump to power, said in an interview with the New York Times.
Mr Bannon, who is visiting Italy as part of a European tour, called a coalition between the M5S and the League the "ultimate dream".
The winner of the elections today will help shape Europe's direction at a time when the European Union is contending with threats to the rule of law in member states Hungary and Poland, and is negotiating a bitter divorce with Britain.
And because Italy is a main gateway for migrants into Europe, the decisions it takes about how to treat those who reach its shores will reverberate throughout the continent.
Mr Salvini could head the government if the coalition wins and his party gets more votes than Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy).
"From Monday, the League will govern this country," Mr Salvini told supporters at his final campaign rally in Milan last Friday.
The rightwing alliance has promised to deport some 600,000 irregular migrants - roughly the number of asylum-seekers that have arrived on boats from Libyan shores since 2013 - a proposal dismissed by the government as unfeasible.
PD leader Matteo Renzi told a final campaign event in his native Florence that only a vote for his party would prevent Mr Salvini from taking power.
If no party wins an overall majority, one possible scenario outlined by analysts could be a grand coalition between the PD and Forza Italia.
The last polls - issued on Feb 16 before a pre-election ban came into force - showed Mr Berlusconi's four-party coalition in the lead with 37 per cent, including 17 per cent for Forza Italia and 13 per cent for the League.
The M5S got 28 per cent of voting intentions while the main centre-left coalition scored 27 per cent, including 23 per cent for the PD.The polls close at 11pm Rome time (6am tomorrow Singapore time).
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST