ROME - With a day to go before polls open in an Italian election that has been marked by ugly anti-migrant rhetoric and marred by violence, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party and former prime minister Matteo Renzi warned voters that Italy is on the brink of being led by “extremists” and “dangerous populists,” and risks being dragged into a Greek-style economic meltdown.
He said Sunday's general election will be a choice between those offering growth and those who risk causing economic turmoil. “I say to those who are undecided that this election is much more important than they want to make out; this election is a big divide between those betting on growth and an extremist message,” Renzi said.
“My appeal to the undecided is to think carefully. We ask the Italian people to think carefully,” he said during a live forum organized by Facebook and ANSA, the public press agency.
His opponents in a rightwing alliance led by three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which includes Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant, euro-skeptic Lega, lashed back.
They characterized his remarks as a desperate bid to shore up the vote of the ruling party that’s collapsing in the face of their campaigning and under pressure from the maverick, anti-establishment Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), which may emerge as the largest single parliamentary party from the election.
Berlusconi’s alliance is likely to secure the largest bloc of parliamentary seats but short of an overall majority, prompting political turmoil and weeks of deal-making to shape a coalition government, predict analysts.
Salvini and Berlusconi have a deal that if the Lega wins more seats than Forza Italia, then Salvini will take the prime minister’s job in any rightwing coalition government that may be formed. Berlusconi, who is barred from holding public office until next year because of a tax fraud conviction, wants his former spokesman Antonio Tajani, currently the president of the European parliament, to be prime minister.
As Renzi delivered his warning, the leaders of CasaPound, an openly neo-fascist stand-alone party, urged followers to back the Lega on Sunday, arguing their votes would strengthen the far-right in Berlusconi’s alliance and help lead to Salvini becoming prime minister.
“If he [Salvini] takes us out of the euro zone, out of the European Union and blocks immigration, we are ready to support him. Salvini should be premier,” said Simone Di Stefano, the party’s general secretary. He said CasaPound supporters need to understand that if they don’t want to waste their vote, they should vote for the Lega.
CasaPound’s public endorsement in the run-up to voting is being played down by Berlusconi aides and Lega officials, who fear the embrace by open neo-fascists will scare off moderate voters. “It would be better if they remained silent,” said a Berlusconi aide.
Promising a ‘resurrection’
Salvini, who has called for migrants to be cleansed from the streets, has adopted throughout the campaign a complex electoral strategy, seeking to appeal to the far-right, as well as center-right moderates. Midweek at a mass rally in Milan, he swore on the Bible and the Italian Constitution and held up a rosary saying, “I swear to apply what is envisaged by the constitution and I swear to do it according to the teaching in the sacred gospels.”
Calling supporters “apostles,” Salvini asked the Milan audience to go and spread his message, promising, “this Easter will truly be about resurrection.”
The mixing of Catholicism with an uncompromising anti-migrant message earned the rebuke of the Catholic prelates, including the archbishop of Ferrara, Gian Carlo Perego, who accused the 44-year-old Salvini of a “serious exploitation of two important symbols, fundamental to the Christian experience.” The archbishop of Milan, Mario Delpini, added his disapproval, saying “at political rallies one should talk about politics.”
But while seeking the backing of Catholic moderates, Salvini’s call for a widespread migrant expulsion and his outspoken euro-skepticism have resonated with open neo-fascists. Lega candidates in local rallies have made little effort to push away neo-fascist support. The failure of the Lega to distance itself from groups like CasaPound has added to unease among some conservative nationalists in the Berlusconi alliance.
A candidate in the region of Lazio told VOA, “This entanglement unnerves me and other moderate and liberal conservatives; we need clear water between us and those who worship Benito Mussolini, from political forces like CasaPound.”
The right-wing electoral alliance is shot through with personal animosities and distrust. Salvini doesn’t disguise his suspicion publicly that Berlusconi might, in a hung parliament, betray him and seek to run Italy with Renzi by forming a governing coalition consisting of Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, depending on seat mathematics. “With Berlusconi, you always need to be careful, you need four eyes,” he said Friday.
Bank and rating-agency analysts appear to be betting on a grand governing coalition being formed after Sunday’s polls. In investor advice they have sounded confident about the country’s economic outlook, suggesting that despite the carefree promises of tax cut and increased public spending that most parties have made on the campaign trail, the country’s high public debt will be kept in check and the structural reform efforts of the Democratic Party will continue.
Hung parliament predicted
“Available opinion polls currently point to a hung parliament. While this would cause political uncertainty to persist, we would still see it as market-friendly,” the authors of a BNP Paribas said last month. In their advisory titled “Italy: Bullish view faces near-term risks,” the bank’s analysts argued there was a high probability of a grand coalition being formed, which probably would prevent any sharp, debt-boosting tax cuts being adopted.
The rating agency Moody’s worries about short-term uncertainty. “Short of an M5S-led government, which current opinion polls point as unlikely, the main impact of the election in the short to medium-term may be the uncertainty created, if no coalition is in a clear position to form a government. Such uncertainty may potentially depress the positive consumer and business sentiment that is fueling the current economic growth,” Moody’s said.
The equanimity of the banks isn’t shared by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who last week raised Brussels’ alarm about what might unfold in Italy. He made a gloomy forecast of “ungovernability,” warning of a non-operational government emerging, only to retreat in the face of criticism from Rome.
Other EU officials seem to be banking on Berlusconi being able to maintain political stability and order, an ironic bet, as when in office Berlusconi was considered the bete noir of Brussels officials.
While Italy’s election is worrying Brussels, it is delighting former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who arrived in Rome this week to see the campaigning first hand. He told The New York Times, “The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump.”