ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s election is just two weeks away and political rivals insist they will not strike a deal to form a government in the case of a hung parliament, which the final polls suggest will be the most likely result.
During the campaign, centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi called the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement’s chief, Luigi Di Maio, just a “pretty face” whose only work experience was as an usher at the Naples soccer stadium “so he could watch the games for free”.
The centre-left’s Matteo Renzi said Berlusconi nearly drove the country into bankruptcy in 2011 and 5-Star is packed with “scroungers and fraudsters”. Di Maio accused both Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s parties of being inherently corrupt.
“Now is the time when you have to go for your opponent’s jugular,” said Francesco Galietti, a political analyst for Policy Sonar in Rome.
But the day after the March 4 vote, party leaders like Berlusconi of Forza Italia (Go Italy!), Di Maio of 5-Star, and Renzi of the Democratic Party (PD) will likely put away the long knives and start talking.
“No one is letting on about possible post-vote alliances because first they have to speak to their own voters,” said Maurizio Pessato, head of the SWG polling company. “On March 5, the situation will be completely turned on its head.”
More than 50 million Italians, including those living abroad, will be invited to cast a ballot using an untested electoral law that is two-thirds proportional representation and one-third first-past-the-post.
This hybrid system was introduced last year in part to hinder the 5-Star’s chances of an outright win by favouring the formation of pre-vote coalitions.
As a result, the right and left have created tactical alliances to broaden their appeal, but both coalitions still appear to fall short of a majority.
Due to the predominant proportional element of the law, each party - whether in a coalition or not - is putting its own interests first, even at the expense of its allies.
The centre-right alliance that includes Forza Italia, the League and Brothers of Italy is leading with 36-38 percent of the vote, polls show, making it the only bloc with a chance of winning an absolute majority.
The 5-Star, which has always refused to ally with anyone, is on track to become the largest party in parliament with 27-28 percent of the vote, far short of a majority. The PD is polling at 22-23 percent, while the centre-left bloc gets 27-28 percent.
Polls cannot be published after midnight on Friday.
If no government can be seated, a new election could be called. But Italy has historically avoided a second vote even when negotiations dragged on, and President Sergio Mattarella is said to oppose an immediate return to the ballot box.
The campaign is largely playing out on television, with leaders taking turns on the morning and evening talk shows.
They deny any possibility of a German-style grand coalition while stumping on a range of issues, from costly tax cuts to far-fetched mass deportations of migrants, with promises aimed to suit even niche voters.
The 81-year-old Berlusconi is a staple on TV. Lately he has repeatedly promised tax breaks for animal owners, saying women “would rather sleep with their pets than their husbands”.
The 5-Star wants Italy to run entirely on renewable energy with a million electric cars on the streets, without giving details of how and when this will be achieved. The PD promises incentives to get young people to move out of their parents’ houses before they turn 30.
“It’s a surreal campaign, a carnival of lies,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University.
Even allies are at loggerheads, with the League, led by Matteo Salvini, sparring with Berlusconi almost daily. The League says it wants to leave both the euro and the EU, while Berlusconi casts himself as a pro-European, pro-euro moderate.
One sign of the difficult relations on the centre-right is that its leaders have yet to hold a joint rally.
“The campaign we are seeing is fake,” Pessato said. “The day after the vote, the coalitions will have no meaning. The relationships between the parties will change.”
While party chiefs rule out a post-election deal now, there are signs that one is expected.
“Renzi is hoping to do a deal with Berlusconi after the vote,” Rosario Crocetta, the former PD governor of Sicily, told Reuters. Interior Minister Marco Minniti, who is close to Renzi, said on Friday he was open to joining a grand coalition government.
Last month, Di Maio told international investors behind closed doors that he would be willing to negotiate policy and back a government with mainstream rivals if the election produces no clear winner, a source said.
Berlusconi and Salvini declined to attend an event in Rome on Saturday called by their junior coalition partner, Brothers of Italy, at which candidates will vow not to join a government formed between rivals after the vote.
“Anything can happen after this election,” D’Alimonte said.
Additional reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio, Antonio Denti and Cristiano Corvino; Editing by Giles Elgood