Elections in Italy: Determining the nation's and Europe's future

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_ITA171717AA005.jpegROME —  The Italian election Sunday could have a bigger impact on the fate of the European Union and its economy than anything since Brexit.

If the populist group of Italian political parties gets enough votes to form a coalition, it could question whether Italy should stay in the Eurozone, the common currency that unites Europe's cross-border trade. 

No matter which party wins, the country will likely crack down on immigration. 

And if no party gets enough of the vote to have a mandate, Italy will have a year or two of political chaos.

The campaign is so chaotic and confusing that Citigroup bankers advised investors this week to avoid speculating on a specific outcome and instead wait until the votes are counted to determine “how bad is bad.”

There is no "realistic outcome" that would be positive from an Italian or European perspective, according to Javier Noriega, an analyst with investment bankers Hildebrandt and Ferrar.

“Sadly, the best-case scenario is probably that no party does well and Italy has a year or two of political dysfunction that drags down economic growth across the continent," Noriega said.

Italy’s unstable political system has been a punchline for decades. The country has had 65 governments in the 73 years since the end of World War II. The next government will be the 66th.

Italy, one of the USA’s strongest allies in Europe, is already hobbled by slow economic growth, high unemployment, deep public debt and inefficient public services.

Immigration is the election's central issue since the country is on the front line of the European migrant crisis. More than 600,000 migrants, mostly from Syria and North Africa, have arrived on Italian shores in the last four years. Every party has taken a position.

“It’s clear Italy will be tightening the screws on migrant arrivals and on the migrants already” in the country, said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University.

Even the most progressive party, the Democratic Party, has taken a tougher position on migrants than it traditionally has, Pavoncello said. 

Sunday's race features three main poles:

• a center-right group headed by Forza Italia, a party led by four-time prime minister and billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, who left government amid an array of personal legal problems and with the country on the brink of bankruptcy” since those were all factors. His party is allied with the nationalist Northern League;

• the center-left Democratic Party headed by another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi;

• and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, vice-president of the lower house of parliament.

Italian law does not allow polling in the weeks before an election. In the final published round of polls, released Feb. 16, the strongest of the three groups is the Forza Italia-Northern League’s center-right partnership, which has support of more than 35% of voters. The Democratic Party and the Five-Star Movement follow, each with less than 30% of the vote. 

If a single party gets at least 40% of the vote, it receives bonus seats in parliament that would allow it to rule outright. That is unlikely.

Parties will need to band together into a coalition to claim at least half the votes in the parliament. 

“Any government that comes from the March 4 vote will have to be some kind of coalition,” said Lorenzo De Sio, a political scientist with Rome’s LUISS University. “Maybe Berlusconi and Salvini and some smaller parties will do well enough to get a majority. Or it could be a wide coalition with backers of Berlusconi and Renzi. Or the Five-Star Movement could do surprisingly well, and strike a deal to get a majority.

“Or we could have a stalemate,” he said. “It’s anybody’s guess where that would lead.”

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

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