Italy prepares for landmark election
AFPROME--Italians hit by austerity and recession on Saturday prepared to take to the polls for an election that is being watched around Europe, a day after a mass rally in Rome showed rising social discontent.
February 24, 2013, 12:03 am TWN
Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist whose grassroots Five Star Movement could receive a massive protest vote and become Italy's third biggest political party after the elections on Sunday and Monday.
“Let's send them all home!” the crowd chanted on Friday — a slogan of Grillo's campaign against mainstream politicians, many of whom have been discredited recently by a series of investigations into corruption and waste of public funds.
La Repubblica daily called Grillo the “Rock Star of Populism,” while La Stampa spoke of an “apocalyptic climate” and top-selling Corriere della Sera said in an editorial: “An entire system is disappearing.”
Grillo has promised to slash politicians' salaries, increase unemployment benefits and hold a referendum on whether Italy should retain the euro.
Candidates could not campaign on Saturday, and voter surveys have been off-limits for the two weeks leading up to the polls.
“I am worried for my country,” center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the favorite in the polls, told supporters at his final rally on Friday.
Renowned film director Nanni Moretti also appeared at the event and said it was time to “liberate” Italy from the scandal-tainted media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
Outgoing premier Mario Monti promised to overhaul the labor market to create more jobs.
Three-time premier Berlusconi said he was confident even though polls have put him in second place.
Bersani, a cigar-chomping former communist who now espouses broadly pro-market views, has said he will continue with the budget discipline enforced by Monti to the delight of financial markets.
But he will come under pressure to ease back on austerity and do more to promote growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hits a record high of 11.2 percent.
'A fight between clowns': Berlusconi and Grillo
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Stuttgarter Zeitung daily that it was “in Italy's interests” to continue with Monti's reform agenda.
Belgian daily Le Soir carried an editorial titled “Italian Elections, European Stakes.”
“The real danger that threatens Italy, and therefore all of Europe, is instability,” wrote the paper's editorialist Christophe Berti.
Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza said the election was “A Fight Between Clowns” — Berlusconi and Grillo.
With everything at stake, the campaign has been remarkably underwhelming, with few rallies and a lot of back-and-forth in television interviews that have provided little detail on electoral promises.
A case in point was Berlusconi's vow to refund to Italians — if needed out of his own pocket — an unpopular property tax levied by Monti in an official-looking letter that prompted some to queue at post offices to claim their money back.