No clear favourite as Italians vote for 65th government since WWII

The long-road towards the general election comes to a close today, as Italians head for the polls 

Many election analysts forsee a post-poll realignment in which Silvio Berlusconi (pictured) and the centre-left Democratic Party could join forces to form a coalition
Many election analysts forsee a post-poll realignment in which Silvio Berlusconi (pictured) and the centre-left Democratic Party could join forces to form a coalition

Italians head to the polls today to elect – one hopes – what will be the country’s 65th government since 1946.

In what is touted to be another close battle, the ballot should indicate if Italian voters, like others elsewhere in Europe, have tilted toward populist parties since the last general election in 2013. A split vote could spell weeks or months of negotiations to form a new government.

Populism was a factor to varying degrees in recent votes in Germany, France and Britain, but Italy is taking the trend a step further: three main parties that can claim a populist or nationalist bent are fielding candidates.

The anti-immigrant League and the far-right Brothers of Italy are the main players in a right-wing coalition with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Also fielding candidates is the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which has a policy, on paper, of refusing to be part of coalitions but whose leader, Luigi Di Mio, has said in recent days he would be open to discuss options after the election.

The parties share euroskeptic leanings and have promised to crack down on immigration. Even Berlusconi has vowed to repatriate 600,000 migrants.

None of the populist forces are expected to receive enough votes to govern alone, but analysts will be watching to see if the three parties end up topping 50 percent of the vote combined, an outcome that would signal a backlash against Italy's more established parties that for years have dominated politics in centre-right and centre-left coalitions.

Prime ministers in waiting

There are three main blocs fielding candidates: the centre-right anchored by Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the centre-left anchored by the Democratic Party of ex-Premier Matteo Renzi, and the 5-Star Movement, headed by Luigi Di Maio.

Berlusconi cannot run for office because of a tax fraud conviction and has endorsed a long-time Forza Italia member, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, to be premier if Forza Italia comes out ahead within the centre-right.

Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigrant, nationalist League party that is part of Berlusconi's coalition, is also gunning for the top job in Italian government, but the League has consistently polled lower than Forza Italia.

In the centre-left coalition, Renzi is automatically a candidate as Democratic Party secretary. But Renzi has alienated much of the Democratic base as well as his coalition partners. Current Democratic Premier Paolo Gentiloni is considered by many a more palatable candidate.

Di Maio is the candidate for the 5-Stars.

While Berlusconi's bloc held a poll lead over the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the incumbent Democratic Party (PD) in the run-up to the election, it may not win overall control of parliament.

Internal divisions within Berlusconi's bloc are also fuelling doubts about its ability to last in government.

With that in mind, many analysts foresee a post-election realignment in which Berlusconi and the centre-left PD would join forces in a re-enactment of the grand coalition that has held sway in Germany since 2013.