What could the result of the poll be, and what will it mean for the country and the EU?
by Jon Henley -European affairs correspondent
What’s the story and why does it matter?
Europe’s fourth largest economy goes to the polls on Sunday 4 March under a new and untested electoral law, for a general election that most observers believe will result in a hung parliament with no outright winner.
With a €230tn debt load representing 135% of its GDP and more than 20% of the eurozone’s total, persistent deficits, a still-stagnant economy, decidedly shaky banks and populism irrupting into its politics, Italy is seen as a risk not just to itself but to the EU – even if some parties’ earlier calls for a euro exit have faded.
The Five Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, is polling as the largest single party while a coalition of rightwing parties assembled by the 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, including his own Forza Italia and some further right groups, is close to 10 points ahead.
But with 30 to 40% of voters still undecided, the final outcome is highly unpredictable – and an inconclusive one will only add to the instability.
Negotiations to form a government are expected to be tricky and could well produce a weak, unstable left-right coalition incapable of passing major legislation or pushing through the structural reforms many feel Italy needs.
How did we get here?
The former centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi resigned in late 2016 after staking his job on a referendum on proposed constitutional reforms, which he lost. He was replaced by his party colleague Paolo Gentiloni in a caretaker capacity until new elections could be held.
The defeat of Renzi’s proposals, which would have evened out differences between the electoral systems for Italy’s upper and lower houses, left the country without a working electoral system and Gentiloni spent most of 2017 pushing through a new electoral law, which was finally passed in October.
Renzi is contesting the election as leader of the centre-left Democratic party.
How does the new system work?
The law creates a mixed electoral system in which just over a third of parliamentarians in the upper and lower house are elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP) and two-thirds by proportional representation (PR) via party lists.
Parties can stand alone, in which case they must clear a 3% threshold to win seats, or in a pre-announced coalition – which the new system favours – with a threshold of 10%. Unlike the current system, this one does not give an automatic majority to any party or alliance that wins 40% of the vote.
Voters get two slips, one for each house, and can put one cross on each that will count for both the FPTP and PR elements. Candidates can stand in an FPTP ballot in one constituency, but also be on a party PR list in up to five constituencies.
A total of 232 lower house seats will be reserved for FPTP winners, 386 for PR candidates, and 12 for overseas constituencies. The equivalent figures in the senate are 102, 207 and six.
What are the big issues?
Immigration, already a major concern, has shot further up the political agenda since the shooting of six Africans by a far-right extremist in February: Berlusconi promptly called the issue a “social bomb ready to explode” and promised to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants should his coalition enter government.
Otherwise, despite a current uptick in growth, the long and seemingly irreversible decline of Italy’s economy remains an underlying theme, as do persistent high unemployment (a third of all under-25s are out of work) and – particularly in the south – corruption. Europe, and especially the euro, may yet return as a hot topic.
More than most, however, Italian election campaigns tend to be dominated by chat about who is backing, attacking or or abandoning whom rather than concrete proposals and worked-out policies. Apart from a few wild and, for the most part, unfulfillable promises (see below), this one is no exception.
Who is standing and and what do they promise?
In an increasingly feverish political atmosphere, the president, Sergio Mattarella, has been forced to urge all parties to keep their electoral promises realistic, practical and responsible. Not many are listening.
Centre-right: Forza Italia is led by four-time prime minister Berlusconi, although he is barred from standing because of a tax fraud conviction. It aims to introduce a “parallel currency” for domestic use, keeping the euro for international trade; have a single, flat rate income tax for companies and individuals; abolish housing, inheritance and road tax; double the minimum pension; introduce a minimum income of €1,000 a month for all and block new immigrant arrivals.
Radical right: The Northern League is led by Matteo Salvini. It would introduce a parallel currency; abolish the EU’s fiscal compact, which imposes stiff budget cuts on high-debt countries; bring in a flat tax for all at 15%; allow earlier retirement; crack down on immigration and repatriate 100,000 illegal immigrants a year; have tougher penalties for crime; improve relations with Russia and reopen Italy’s brothels.
Brothers of Italy is led by Giorgia Meloni. A southern equivalent of the Northern League with neofascist roots, its policies are broadly similar.
Anti-establishment: The Five Star Movement is led by Di Maio. It proposes a minimum monthly income of €780; raising the budget deficit; renegotiating the fiscal compact; repealing 400 “useless” laws including labour and pension reforms to allow earlier retirement and make firing harder; raising taxes on energy companies and improving relations with Russia.
Centre-left: The Democratic party is led by Renzi. It is proposes an increase in the minimum wage; negotiating to abolish the fiscal compact and raising the budget deficit to 3% of GDP so as to cut taxes and increase investment.
Left: Free and Equal is led by Pietro Grasso, and is a new party uniting smaller groups that left Renzi’s Democratic party. It proposes repealing labour and pension reforms and boosting public spending.
Who will win?
The Five Star Movement is set to be the single largest party with between 27 and 29% of the vote, but it has long ruled out forming a coalition with any of the traditional parties. In recent days, however, it has said it could reconsider in the event of an inconclusive result.
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is on between 16 and 18%. His coalition with the Northern League on 12 to 14%, the Brothers of Italy on five to 6% and possibly Us with Italy on two to 3% could come within spitting distance of 40%.
On the left, Renzi’s centre-left alliance should manage a combined 26-28%. The Democratic party is on between 22 and 23%, and More Europe, Together Italy and Popular Civic List between four and 5%. Free and Equal is polling at around 6%.
A regional election in Sicily in November saw a Berlusconi-backed candidate win nearly 40% and the Democratic party less than 20%. In regional elections in June, the centre-right were also the big winnersand the Five Star Movement fared badly.
Add to this the high proportion of still-undecided voters and it is all but impossible to predict who will be governing Italy later this year.