Italy 'at a crossroads' ahead of divisive election

With polls set to open, Italian voters are preparing to decide the political fate of their country. But amid a divided political landscape, Italy's ex-premier warned the country could see "extremists" come to power.

In an election cycle punctuated by violence, voters are set to decide Italy's political future on Sunday. Political leaders gave their final campaign speeches on Friday, as Italian law observes electoral silence a day before the vote.

Business | 05.03.2018

At a rally in Florence, former premier Matteo Renzi of the center-left Democratic Party (PD) warned that Italy was "at a crossroads," referring to rising support for far-right parties and the left-wing euroskeptic 5-Star Movement (M5S).

Read more: Crisis? What crisis?

"On March 4, we risk seeing the country in the hands of extremists and having to renounce the sacrifices that we Italians have made," Renzi told the last PD rally before the vote.

"I prefer to be in opposition than ally with extremists. We have put the country together; we cannot be complicit in a plan that wants to wreck everything," Renzi said.

Matteo Renzi is hoping to make a comeback after staking his premiership on a failed referendum in 2016

Tensions rising

A right-of-center alliance led by Forza Italia, the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is expected to lead with 38.6 percent of the vote, according to the latest poll conducted by Euromedia Research.

The center-right Forza Italia has teamed up with three other parties, including the far-right Northern League. The right-wing alliance has campaigned on a platform of deporting 600,000 "irregular" migrants and cutting taxes to stimulate growth.

Read more: Italy warns of 'influence campaigns' ahead of key elections

Matteo Salvini, who leads the Northern League, said Friday that he would borrow French President Emmanuel Macron's position that economic migrants must be returned to their countries of origin. He had previously vowed to deport 150,000 if his party wins the election.

Campaigning reached a fever pitch last month when a 28-year-old who ran as a candidate for the Northern League in local elections went on a two-hour shooting spree targeting African migrants in the eastern city of Macerata, leaving six of them injured.

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Focus on Europe | 01.03.2018

Populists on the rise

Still the underdogs

The M5S is expected to gain the most votes as a single party. However, electoral regulations passed last year have undermined their hopes of leading the next government in a system that mixes proportional representation and first-past-the-post rules.

However, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio told a rally in Rome that the party was "one step away from victory," saying he had seen an unpublished poll that showed them performing well. Italian law forbids polls to be published two weeks before the vote.

Read more: Italy's 5-Star Movement feeds on voters' anger

Under Di Maio's leadership, the euroskeptic party has promised not to push for an exit from the eurozone or NATO despite those being core objectives of the party.

"From here ends the era of the opposition and begins that of governing," Di Maio said, highlighting his party's plan to halve MP's salaries and redirect government funds to those still affected by the 2008 financial crisis, from which Italy has yet to fully emerge.

As Italy is set to become the third-largest economy in the EU after Brexit, making it a strategic partner for Germany and France as they move to reform the bloc, its internal divisions could prove to be a stumbling block on the road to a more cohesive Europe.

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

He's back, and this time he's a vegetarian

Last Easter, in an attempt to soften his image as he eyed a return to poltics, Berlusconi took part in an ad promoting vegetarianism that featured him snuggling lambs in soft lighting overlaid with easy listening music. Although Berlusconi is barred from seeking office for another year due to a fraud convinction, a bloc led by his Forza Italia party has been polling strongly.

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

'No one will marry you'

Berlusconi is well known for offensive remarks and belittling women, so it's no surprise he did both in one go on the campaign trail. Earlier in February, he told a BBC journalist that her handshake was too manly; "Otherwise men will think, this one is going to beat me up, and no one will marry you."

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

Win (a date with) Salvini!

Matteo Salvini of the far-right Northern League came up with a humble publicity stunt – whoever likes his Facebook posts can win a chance to take a picture with "the captain", talk to him on the phone, or meet in private. He was lambasted on social media and by Italy's La Repubblica daily, which wrote: "The captain? Even Silvio Berlusconi in his golden age would envy this kind of self-regard."

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

Think about it!

If ex-PM Matteo Renzi was hoping to make a big splash with this tepid ad in which — surprise! — he shows up on a bike and tells a family to "think about" voting for him, then he was certainly successful. Just not perhaps in the way he wanted. The staggeringly lackluster TV spot was parodied countless times on social media.

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

Just us kids

Luigi di Maio of Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) has repeatedly used his age of only 31 to try and connect with younger voters and is prolific on social media. One of his most cringe-worthy attempts to relate to millennial voters came in a video he posted to Instagram in which he said M5S would make Italy "fly high," before "flying" himself in an entertainment complex.

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

Pope: Fake news is like being aroused by feces

After the US election, the Pope warned about the spread of fake news in Italy and its undue influence. He called untrue, sensational stories "the greatest damage the media can do," in an interview with the Catholic weekly Tertio. "I think the media...must not fall into – no offense intended – the sickness of coprophilia," he said, using a more polite term for an abnormal interest in faeces.

Democracy Italian style: The weirdest moments of Italy's election campaign

Prime Minister Oliver?

Comedian and pundit John Oliver brought the tumultous Italian election to the attention of a wider audience in one of his famous TV segments, skewering Berlusconi. Oliver's solution to Italy's unwieldy democracy? Encouraging Italian lawmakers to appoint him: "Incredibly, I am far from your worst option," he joked while cuddling a lamb.

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