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Centre-right leads in Sicily regional vote: exit polls

A rightwing coalition spearheaded by Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia was projected on Monday to have edged out the populist Five Star Movement in a closely watched regional election in Sicily, according to polling forecasts.

Centre-right leads in Sicily regional vote: exit polls
A centre-right victory would be a huge boost for ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi, pictured at a rally. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

As counting got underway on Monday following the close of polling stations late on Sunday, the right's Nello Musumeci was projected to have 37.3 percent of the vote and the Five Star's Giancarlo Cancelleri 36.8 percent, the EMG polling institute calculated for La7 television.

The Piepoli institute, meanwhile, gave Musumeci 36 percent to Cancelleri's 34 percent, according to RAI television.

Final results are not expected until later on Monday, but the projections appear to confirm the expected loss for leftwing rivals, with the centre-left Democratic Party of former premier Matteo Renzi seen garnering 20 percent of the vote.

The Sicily vote is being watched as a barometer of public sentiment ahead of general election expected next year.

A new electoral system, voted in last month, favours alliances. If the results are confirmed, it would prove the power of a coalition made up of Forza Italia (Go Italy) and its rightist allies, the anti-immigrant Northern League and the Brothers of Italy. While the bloc is considered unlikely to be able to win an absolute majority on the national stage, snapping up the most votes would put it in control of any coalition it formed with the left.

Berlusconi, the four-time former premier who was declared politically dead after a series of scandals and open heart surgery last year, hopes a Sicily victory will launch him back in the centre-right driving seat.

One of his loudest challengers, comedian and M5S founder Beppe Grillo, had told Sicilians “the choice is simple: us or them, the future or the past, hope or failure, citizens or traditional parties”. As one of the poorest regions in Italy, Sicily has proven open to the anti-establishment M5S, which wooed many with a promise of establishing a basic universal income.

But it appeared voters may have been more convinced by Berlusconi's portrayal of himself as a pro-European moderate who represented the only real defence against populism. The League had seen Sicily as a testing ground for expanding its reach beyond Italy's northern regions.

A bitterly feuding left failed to get anywhere near the top, losing control of the island.

The only consolation for Renzi was that the MPD — a new party formed this year after the PD's far-left flank broke away — did less well than he feared, taking home between seven and 11 percent. The result could still spell bad news not just for the left nationally but also for the former PM, who wants his old job back.

“Renzi is preparing for the probable Sicilian nosedive like a man whose enemies are at the door and the supplies are running out,” political commentator Tommaso Ciriaco said.

The 42-year old has been accused of causing a debilitating rift in the left that may not be easily fixed.

Voter dissatisfaction in Sicily — where the rate of youth unemployment is nearly 60 percent — translated into a pitiful turnout. While only 47 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the last regional election in 2012, a record low, figures at 7pm on Sunday suggested even fewer had done so this year.

“The polling stations open under a dark cloud, amid controversy over the risk of vote-rigging,” La Repubblica daily said, referring to claims the decision to wait overnight before beginning the count increased the chances of fraud.

The interior ministry was tightening controls in the Mafia heartland in response, it said.

By Alessio Tricani with Ella Ide in Rome

READ ALSO: Italy's political system – ten key things to know

ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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