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.

Former premier Matteo Renzi is hoping to win back the top spot with his ruling Democratic Party and three other smaller centre and more radical groups. March 2, 2018
Former premier Matteo Renzi is hoping to win back the top spot with his ruling Democratic Party and three other smaller centre and more radical groups. March 2, 2018 ( AFP )

Italy's election campaign reads much like a police blotter, chronicling a country whose politics lately have been increasingly nasty, divisive and even violent.

A young man knifed while affixing posters for a far-left party. A politician for a pro-fascism party beaten up on the street. A candidate for premier spat upon and shoved while stumping for her far-right party. Protests and counter-protests, in the streets from north to south.

The national vote this Sunday to determine who'll govern Italy appears unlikely to bring much relief. Prospects are high for weeks, even months, of more political tensions after the vote, with backroom party manoeuvring quite possibly producing a crisis-prone, short-lived government with limited chances of making headway on Italy's economic and social issues.

Some fear an even more dismal outcome.

The 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, whose career has been shadowed by sex scandals and court cases, cannot himself hold elected office because of a fraud conviction. March 2, 2018
The 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, whose career has been shadowed by sex scandals and court cases, cannot himself hold elected office because of a fraud conviction. March 2, 2018 ( AFP )

Rising nationalism 

Sunday's vote "will bring Italy in line with the worst tendencies in contemporary European politics," predicted Cornell University sociology professor Mabel Berezin, who studies populism and fascism in Europe.

Noting a rise in xenophobia and nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, Berezin said the main contenders in Italy's election include parties that have supported anti-European, anti-immigration and populist positions.

Over the last few years, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, many fleeing poverty in Africa, after rescue at sea from smugglers' boats, coupled with Italy's own slow economic recovery, makes for an extremely volatile situation, Berezin said.

Italy is also feeling the effects of its "legacy of fascism," which includes small political parties with neo-fascist roots in the decades following the demise of Benito Mussolini's dictatorship in World War II, the professor added.

The extreme far-right Forza Nuova, whose leader unabashedly describes himself as fascist, is among the smaller parties running candidates.

If opinion polls prove accurate, voters won't reward any one party or coalition with enough votes to yield the parliamentary majority needed to sustain a viable government.

Lega Nord far right party leader Matteo Salvini addresses supporters during the closing campaign rally in Milan. March 2, 2018
Lega Nord far right party leader Matteo Salvini addresses supporters during the closing campaign rally in Milan. March 2, 2018 ( AFP )

Berlusconi is back

Leading in opinion polls has been the populist 5-Star Movement. But because the 5-Stars deny they're a political party, their 31-year-old candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, nixes any entering into a postelection coalition government with established parties.

If anyone stands a chance of winning an absolute majority, analysts concur, it's the coalition anchored by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia Party and the right-wing, virulently anti-migrant League. Based in Italy's more affluent north, the League is led by Matteo Salvini, who hopes his party will outdraw Forza and position him for the premiership.

A smaller campaign partner is Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots. Despite its name, it boasts the only female candidate for premier, Giorgia Meloni.

Because of a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi himself can't hold public office. But as a three-time premier, his face is a familiar one.

The 81-year-old billionaire recently went lobbying in Brussels to convince European Union leaders he is a dependable pro-Europe ally. He reluctantly resigned as premier in 2011 after financial markets lost faith he could keep Italy's sovereign debt crisis from endangering the eurozone.

Berlusconi has also been unofficially promoting European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as the "right" person to be premier. Tajani previously served as Berlusconi's spokesman in the 1990s.

TRT World's Sandra Gathmann reports from Rome.

Undecided voters to pull weight

How the Italian election plays out might well depend on the biggest bloc in the opinion polls: those saying they're undecided who will get their vote or if they'll even vote at all, along with those who say they'll boycott the vote.

D'Alimonte estimates there are up to 9 million Italians "we don't know if they'll go to vote, and if they go, whom they will vote for."

In Italy, there are 46.6 million people eligible to vote for the lower Chamber of Deputies, and 42.9 million for the Senate. Voters must be at least 18 to cast ballots for the Chamber and at least 25 to vote for the Senate.

The Interior Ministry says among Italians living abroad, nearly 4.2 million are eligible to vote for the lower chamber and 3.8 million of them can also vote for the Senate.

Source: AP