The euro zone crisis threatens to make a rude comeback Monday as Italians go to the polls in a tight election that could result in a stalemate or, possibly, the return of Silvio Berlusconi.
Either scenario would rattle markets and trigger anxiety among European leaders, who view Italy as the continent's biggest problem child, given its outlandish debt – almost 130 per cent of gross domestic product – and sinking economy. Italy is the 17-country euro zone's third-biggest economy, almost as big as Britain's.
Think Greece times 10 if political instability triggers economic chaos.
Some political commentators and economists think the election is too close to call and may result in a fragile, short-lived coalition government that could stall the economic reform process deemed essential to return Italy, and the euro zone, to health. Economist Anatoli Annenkov, of France's Société Générale bank, said "Italy may [yet] again be headed for a period of political gridlock and slow progress with structural reform."
With only three days to go before the voting booths open Sunday in the two-day election, the leading candidates were turbo-charging their campaigns in an effort to win over undecided voters, who are thought to make up a quarter to a third of voters (popularity polls are banned in the election's last two weeks).
Many voters assume the election result will be messy.
"There will not be a stable government because no one will win," said Norma Camelli, 51, a dermatologist who watched Mr. Berlusconi charm an audience Wednesday at the suburban Roman hospital that employs her.
"We will have to have a second election within a year, is my guess."
Mr. Berlusconi, Italy's three-time prime minister who is fighting his sixth campaign, was busier than his rivals on the promise front. On Wednesday, it emerged that his centre-right Popolo della Liberta (People of Freedom, or PdL) party had sent letters to millions of Italians promising not just to kill the hated property tax, known as IMU, that was introduced by Prime Minister Mario Monti last year, but also to reimburse amounts paid out.
While the election may not save Italy from itself, its cast of characters is hard to beat on the eccentric scale. The leading candidates include Mr. Berlusconi, who is 76, engaged to a woman almost half a century younger and was convicted of tax fraud in the autumn (he is appealing, meaning his four-year prison sentence is stayed); Beppe Grillo, the stand-up comedian and leader of the Five Star Movement, who is coming on strong, wants to hold a referendum on euro membership and dismisses the stiff Mr. Monti as "Rigor Montis;" Mr. Monti himself, who has never run for elected office and has a leaden campaign style that proves it; Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist whose Partito Democratico is supported by unions that refuse to believe their wages must come down; and Nichi Vendola, the gay governor of the southern Italian region of Puglia who lives with his Canadian partner and wants same-sex marriage legalized, a position that has made him rather unpopular at the Vatican.
Mr. Berlusconi is the man to watch in the dying days of the campaign. Many are impressed by his comeback from the political dead after his effective ouster in November, 2011, at the height of the crisis that came close to shutting Italy out of sovereign debt markets. He was replaced by Mr. Monti and his unelected cabinet, who launched a "Save Italy" campaign dominated by tax increases and economic reforms aimed at restoring growth.
Mr. Berlusconi's promise to reduce taxes and eliminate the IMU property tax, combined with this his anti-austerity, anti-Germany message, has propelled him to second place in the polls.
Dead last was Mr. Monti and his centrist coalition, favoured by European leaders and Italian captains of industry, but disliked by most Italians, who want to punish him for the property tax.
Based on the latest polls, Mr. Bersani's centre-left coalition would win the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, but would be unlikely to take the Senate, the upper house. Since both houses rank equally, a majority in both is required to govern. If the centre-left is deprived of a Senate majority, Mr. Bersani would probably court Mr. Monti's centrist.
But Mr. Monti this week said he has "nothing in common" with the centre-left, meaning any coalition talks might go nowhere. Then there is Mr. Berlusconi. There is some chance he will win both houses, a scenario that would return Italy to the forefront of the crisis. Italian bond yields, which plummeted in the autumn, have been rising as his own popularity rises.