ROME (AP) — A rival pair of populist and stridently anti-European Union political forces surged in Italy’s election for Parliament, but without enough support to govern the country alone, projections showed early Monday.
With the prospect of a hung Parliament looking increasingly likely, the nation faced a long slog to the formation of a viable government.
“Ungovernable Italy” headlined daily newspaper La Stampa as the early numbers rolled in.
In projections based on samples from Sunday’s voting, a center-right coalition that included former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the anti-immigrant League and a small far-right party had a slight lead over the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
However, the RAI State TV television projections showed the two parties with the most euroskeptic platforms — the 5 Stars and the League — together topping the 50 percent needed to rule Italy. The 5-Star Movement was projected to receive 32.5 percent of the vote, the League nearly 18 percent.
At the same time, the north-based League, led by Matteo Salvini, was widening its lead on campaign partner Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party. Projections gave the League 17.7 percent compared to Forza Italia’s 13.3 percent.
If the final results have the League topping the prevailing coalition, it would determine the tenor of postelection talks on forming a new government and deal another blow to Berlusconi’s political fortunes.
The media mogul has long been the dominant figure in a center-right bloc that propelled him to Italy’s premiership three times. Now, ineligible to be premier due to a tax fraud conviction, Berlusconi, 81, could be eclipsed by the brash Salvini.
Salvini, 43, who never has held public office in Italy, fed public anger at the EU’s inability to help handle hundreds of thousands of migrants who flooded the country in recent years after being rescued while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
“My first word: Thanks!” he tweeted.
One of Salvini’s top aides, Lorenzo Fontana, was more expansive. The League’s performance gives a “clear signal” that the European Union “thought more about reports, numbers, deficits” than citizens, Fontana said.
Based on the 5-Star Movement’s stronger-than-predicted showing, its candidate for premier, Luigi Di Maio, 31, exulted as the projections appeared on TV screens in a Rome hotel. He didn’t comment, but jumped for joy and hugged aides.
The Movement considers itself an internet-based democracy, not a party, and views established parties as a parasitic caste.
Whether Di Maio might accept a coalition government deal with the League, which served in all three of Berlusconi’s governments and therefore is the kind of establishment party the Movement loathes, was unclear.
Another top Movement leader, Alessandro Di Battista, said early Monday that other parties “will have to come to us” given the 5-Stars’ “triumph.” Addressing supporters, he said the 5-Stars only would hold such talks if those parties use the Movement’s “methods” of “transparency and correctness.”
During the campaign, Di Maio backed off early 5-Star policy to push for a referendum to get Italy out of the euro-currency group. But 5-Star members rail against what they say are excessive EU rules.
Headed to a stunning loss in the vote was the Democratic Party, the main partner in the center-left government that has ruled Italy since 2013. Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina called the projections giving the party just under 20 percent “a complete defeat,” The Democrats received 25 percent in 2013 and have occupied the premier’s office since then.
Under former Premier Matteo Renzi’s heavy-handed party leadership, the Democrats have bickered and splintered, with more left-leaning elements defecting to form a smaller party that was doing poorly in Sunday’s vote.
Wolfango Piccoli, a London-based analyst with Teneo Intelligence, noted that Berlusconi and Salvini had forged a “gentleman’s agreement” that whichever of their parties received more support could pick Italy’s next premier, if their bloc secured a majority of the vote,
Berlusconi has tapped European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his choice for premier. Salvini wants the job for himself. Despite Salvini’s professed criticism of the EU, he has served as a lawmaker in the European Parliament.
Weeks or even months of political negotiations to line up a governing coalition appeared likely.
Political analyst Lorenzo Codogno of London-based LC Macro Advisors observed that a hung Parliament would make it “extremely difficult for a narrow mainstream coalition to have the numbers to govern.”
“Financial markets are likely to take these figures negatively,” he added.
Ahead of the vote, some pro-European analysts had envisioned a possible “nightmare scenario” of an extremist alliance among the 5-Stars, the League and the right-wing Brothers of Italy.
Steve Bannon, right-wing populist architect of Donald Trump’s White House campaign, was in Rome this weekend, cheering on the populists.
“I think if they create a coalition among all the populists, it would be fantastic, it would terrify Brussels and pierce it in its heart,” Bannon was quoted as saying in Sunday’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Barry reported from Milan; Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome. Frances D’Emilio is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fd