Italian election campaign enters home straight

Italy’s rival political parties made a final bid for votes on Friday ahead of an election in which former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is gunning for a leading role in shaping any new government.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the anti-immigration League party — allied with the 81-year-old Berlusconi — and the ruling centre-left Democratic Party held their final rallies before Sunday’s election.

The campaign has been dominated by concerns about immigration and the far-right is expected to make major gains, while the populist Five Star Movement is also likely to score well.

“Tonight the era of opposition finishes, and the era of Five Star Movement government begins!” said leader Luigi Di Maio at their rally in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Friday.

The Five Star Movement’s fiery rhetoric has earned them followers among the many in Italy who feel alienated from politics.

“I did not vote for a long time but I started to follow the movement from the beginning,” says party activist Marco Becchi, who is 31 and from Rome.

“They gave me hope, a reason to vote again and believe in this country.”

However despite their supporters’ enthusiasm the final polls in the election indicate that Berlusconi’s four-party right-wing alliance will win the most votes after his promises to expel 600,000 “irregular” migrants and slash taxes.

The 81-year-old Berlusconi, whose career has been shadowed by sex scandals and court cases, cannot himself hold elected office because of a fraud conviction.

But on Thursday he unveiled European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, a close ally since the tycoon first entered politics in the early 1990s, as his choice for prime minister if he wins.

– ‘The League will govern’ –

Berlusconi’s coalition on Thursday held its first and last joint campaign event in a bid to dispel rumours of severe divisions between Berlusconi and eurosceptic League leader Matteo Salvini.

Salvini has prime ministerial ambitions of his own and has indicated that he should receive the nomination if his party wins more votes than Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy).

“From Monday, the League will govern this country!”, Salvini said at his final campaign rally in Milan.

The slow recovery has been another major issue in the campaign and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of the centre-left Democratic Party got a welcome boost on Thursday from some positive results.

Economic growth for last year was revised up to 1.5 percent from a previous estimate of 1.4 percent and the public deficit fell to 1.9 percent of GDP — its lowest level in a decade.

But many Italians say they are not feeling the effects of economic recovery and gross domestic product is still 5.7 percent lower than at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008.

“Whatever the election outcome, I don’t believe anything will change,” said Imma Arco, a 28-year-old pharmacy graduate from Naples who is moving to Britain to further her career.

All the main parties have promised to tackle a sharp growth in poverty in what is one of Europe’s most unequal societies.

Their proposed measures range from a universal basic income put forward by the Five Star Movement, to promises of an official minimum wage from the Democratic Party which has warned of the need to maintain budgetary discipline.

– Campaign clashes –

Italy has a new complex electoral system in place — a mixture of proportional representation and first-past-the-post — which makes the outcome of this vote particularly difficult to predict.

Analysts have said the three main possible scenarios are an outright victory by Berlusconi’s grouping, a grand coalition between him and the Democratic Party or a more temporary government formed with the guidance of President Sergio Mattarella.

Commentators have warned over the harsh anti-immigration tone of the campaign, which has seen numerous clashes between anti-fascist and far-right activists across the country.

The atmosphere soured particularly after a racially motivated attack on February 3 by a far-right gunman in the central city of Macerata that left six African migrants injured.

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