Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot as he prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in in Milan, Italy, March 4 2018. Picture: REUTERS
Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi holds his ballot as he prepares to cast his vote at a polling station in in Milan, Italy, March 4 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Rome — Italians went to the polls on Sunday in a vote that could bring gridlock after an election campaign marked by anger over the listless economy, high unemployment and immigration.

Pollsters have predicted former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party and his far-right allies will be the largest bloc in parliament but fall short of a majority.

The 5-Star Movement, an anti-establishment movement, looks set to be the biggest single party, feeding off discontent over entrenched corruption and growing poverty, while the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is expected to limp home in third place.

Heavily indebted Italy is the third-largest economy in the eurozone. Although investors were sanguine ahead of the ballot, a prolonged political stalemate could reawaken the threat of market instability.

"I’d like to see the parties work together more for the good of the country … there was too much mud-slinging during the campaign," said 20-year-old Luca Hammad while leaving a polling station in Rome.

"I hope these elections bring change for young people. Even if you find a job, wages are so low it is hardly worth working."

In the latest sign of the divisive climate ahead of the vote, some homes in Pavia, near Milan, were marked overnight with stickers that said: "Here lives an antifascist".

Neofascist movements have been gaining ground in Italy, where a Nazi sympathiser injured six Africans in a shooting incident in February.

Polling stations closed late on Sunday night with exit polls due immediately afterwards. The vote is being held under a complex new law that could mean the final result will not be clear until late on Monday.

Confusion over the new law led to mistakes in 200,000 ballots that had to be reprinted overnight in Palermo, where some polling stations delayed opening amid protests from voters. The campaign has marked the return to frontline politics of 81-year-old Berlusconi, who was forced to quit as prime minister in 2011 at the height of a sovereign-debt crisis and was written off after sex scandals, legal woes and ill health. A 2013 conviction for tax fraud means he cannot hold public office.

He has put forward Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, as a candidate for prime minister.

Populist power

Tajani’s moderate profile is aimed at allaying fears in Europe about his populist allies, notably the League, whose leader Matteo Salvini has promised to deport the 600,000 boat migrants who have arrived in Italy over the past four years.

Some pollsters said the League could overtake Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

Populist parties have been on the rise across Europe since the 2008 financial crisis, but mainstream parties in Italy have found it especially hard to contain voter anger, with the economy still 6% smaller than a decade ago and unemployment stuck at about 11%. The 5-Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, has been particularly successful at tapping into the disaffection in the underdeveloped south.