Italy heads to the polls in fractious election

Italians are casting ballots in an election pollsters say will likely result in a hung parliament. A bid for power by a group led by scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi has added spice to the campaign.

Polls opened in Italy on Sunday in an election widely seen as a three-way race between a right-wing alliance led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the left-wing euroskeptic 5-Star Movement (M5S) and the ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD).

The latest poll conducted by Euromedia Research put Berlusconi's coalition in the lead with 38.6 percent of the vote. The alliance, which teams the center-right Forza Italia with three other parties including the far-right Northern League, has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, while also promising tax cuts.

Read more: Italy: Crisis? What crisis?

Berlusconi, 81, who was expelled from the Senate in 2013 following a number of scandals, including allegations of sex with minors and various abuses of power, is banned from holding public office until 2019 but has vowed to remain "custodial" leader of Forza Italia until the ban expires. He said Thursday that he would like to see European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, known for his moderate views, as the head of a future government.

Business | 05.03.2018

The day before the vote, Berlusconi was posing for selfies on the streets of Naples

Country divided

The M5S under Luigi Di Maio is also expected to perform well and gain the most votes as a single party. Despite its euroskeptic platform, the party has pledged not to work towards an exit from the eurozone or NATO.

However, a system introduced last year under which one-third of seats will be attributed on a first-past-the-post basis, with the rest divided up by proportional representation, is likely to dash the party's hopes of leading the next government.

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

The Democratic Party (PD) under incumbent Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has failed to capitalize on a slight economic recovery following a severe recession, and is likely to finish in third place, according to polls.

Both Gentiloni and the leader of the PD, ex-premier Matteo Renzi, have warned against the rise of populists and extremists both on the right and the left.

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Focus on Europe | 01.03.2018

Populists on the rise in Italy

Sunday's voting was hampered by the delivery of the wrong ballots to Palermo, on the island of Sicily, forcing some polling stations to remain shut while some 200,000 voting slips were speedily reprinted, the Associated Press news agency reported.

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Some early voters in Rome complained about changes to the voting system, which requires an anti-fraud check. Residents said the new policy was confusing and took too long.

EU on hold

The election result is of considerable significance to the European Union as it struggles to retain cohesion amid a number of pressures, including Brexit and the lack of solidarity on immigration and justice issues shown by some of its members.

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

Italy is set to become the third-largest economy in the EU after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc in March next year, making it a major partner for Germany and France.

Polling stations are to shut at 11 p.m. local time (2200 UTC), with exit polls to be released shortly afterward.

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.

tj/jlw (Reuters, AFP)

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