Italians Vote Sunday for New Parliament, With Populism Taking Front Seat

Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, made a surprise appearance at a chapel in Naples Saturday, one day before Italians vote in a general election to select a new parliament.

Politicians were forbidden to campaign Saturday, but Berlusconi’s visit to the Sansevero chapel drew crowds of journalists and fans. The 81-year-old Berlusconi told reporters that he and his 30-year-old girlfriend were visiting the chapel as tourists. He said the chapel was part of the country’s heritage, to which “no other country in the world can remotely compete against.”

Berlusconi, who served four terms as prime minister, cannot run in Sunday’s election because of a tax fraud conviction in 2013; but he is the driving force behind the center-right Forza Italia party and has thrown his support behind former European Parliament President Antonio Tajani to serve as prime minister if the party wins enough seats.

But forecasters say the election results will probably not end with a clear party as winner, forcing the parties to form a ruling coalition — something that could mean weeks of uncertainty as the parties compete and compromise in a bid to form a workable team.

Populism is a strong force in this election, as it was in recent elections in Britain, France, and Germany.

Three populist-driven major parties are fielding candidates and promising to crack down on immigration. Forza Italia could find coalition partners in the far-right Brothers of Italy or the anti-migrant Lega, or League, party.

Also populist is the Five-star Movement, but the party takes an anti-establishment stance and has vowed not to form coalitions.

On the left, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, the leader of the ruling coalition, could see a drop in support due to Italy’s sluggish economy, with high unemployment and stagnant economic growth. Italy is also struggling to accommodate a large influx of immigrants, and Renzi is personally unpopular.

The Democratic Party is in a coalition with the Democratic Progressive Party and the Italian Left.

Of those, the Democratic Party is by far the strongest player — but this year’s wave of Italian populism could deliver victory for the right wing on Sunday.

With that outcome, Italians may find themselves with a governing coalition focused on cracking down on immigration, reforming the nation’s tax system, and trying to bridge complicated divides — with no guarantee of positive results.

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