Fascists rallied in large numbers in Italian piazzas. The country experienced its worst political violence in years. Formerly unthinkable suggestions, like the mass deportation of migrants, became virtually routine.
The reanimation of Italy’s political ghosts is a worrying harbinger for a European Union weakened by Britain’s decision to leave the bloc, the electoral setbacks of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the long shadow of Russia and the rise of an illiberal bloc of nations in the eastern part of the Continent.
In elections in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, the far right had shifted the debate within the political establishment. But in Italy, the birthplace of fascism, they are a full partner in it.
The populism, the electronic misinformation, the crumbling of the left and the rise of the anti-immigrant, post-fascist hard right that has floated in the European ether for years all crystallized in the Italian campaign.
Italy’s election “epitomizes everything, it is pure populism,” said Stephen K. Bannon, an architect of President Donald Trump’s populist message who served as Trump’s chief strategist until he was forced out in August.
Bannon is in Italy as part of a European tour to help build a broader populist movement throughout Europe, the subject of a speech he will deliver Tuesday in Switzerland. He said he was busy learning from the country’s populists leaders. “The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump,” he said in an interview Friday. “Italy is the leader.”
Populist and far-right parties stand to make some of their deepest inroads anywhere. Chief among the populist forces, the insurgent Five Star Movement, polling around 30 percent, is likely to come out on top in a fractured field.
Italy’s center-left prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, has sought to sound the alarm, telling the newspaper Corriere della Sera on Friday that the election was the most important in a quarter-century, a “contest against populism” with the system of free markets and an open society at stake.
Gentiloni and others have bemoaned the anemic resistance of the country’s political, business and intellectual leaders. The elites seem cowed. The capacity for outrage seems exhausted. This is the nuovo normal, and many analysts fear that Italy will become a bellwether for an anti-European season.
“Brussels and the European capitals are worried because this election could bring the least pro-Europe government Italy has ever had,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO who is a Brussels-based consultant for Project Associates.
Youth employment, widespread economic frustration and fears about migrants have “provided fertile ground” for more extreme politics in Italy, Stefanini said. “The last thing Brussels needs is a problem with Rome,” he added.
But that may be just what it gets.
The political center has so shifted that Silvio Berlusconi, a former three-time prime minister who leads the favored center-right coalition, campaigned on the promise to throw out the country’s 600,000 unauthorized immigrants.
And Berlusconi is considered a nominal moderate.
His prospective partners spent the last days of the campaign blaming newly arrived migrants for Italy’s long-established structural woes and fawning over Viktor Orban, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary, on a visit there.
But among the wide variety of outcomes the election might yield, a victory for the coalition led by Berlusconi, certainly a well-known quantity by now, is considered relatively good news for the European Union.
A far worse result, though certainly conceivable, is an inconclusive election that could lead to an alliance between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League.
For European Union leaders and global investors, it is a nightmare possibility that could rattle Italy’s economy, already buckling under enormous public debt, and send Europe, now at the threshold of recovery, back into crisis.
Both parties have risen on the xenophobia that became the campaign’s animating theme, an indication that the migrant issue is going nowhere, despite European efforts that have cut off smuggling routes and made the Continent less welcoming.
In fact, the center-left government made big progress in recent months in shrinking the numbers of migrants. But voters’ fears and anger over the millions of arrivals from Africa and elsewhere in recent years have metastasized.
Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the Northern League dropped the word Northern from its name to better sell its virulent anti-immigrant message to the southern voters he used to say stunk.
Fake news about migrants, and much else, clogged the Facebook and Twitter feeds of supporters of the League and Five Star, and at times, their sites seemed related.
The messages often reinforced Italy’s growing tilt toward Russia, as well as admiration for its leader, Vladimir Putin, who dismissed the notion of meddling in the Italian election because, he suggested, the options were so good there was no need.
The party with the deepest suspicion of Russia, the Democratic Party of Matteo Renzi, has hemorrhaged support, extending a trend across Western Europe.
In 2014, the party won 40 percent of the vote for the European Parliament. In the current election, the left is in such shambles, and Renzi has proved so polarizing, that his party has decided it was better off not to name a nominee for prime minister.
Berlusconi, who is barred from holding office until 2019 because of a tax fraud conviction, waited until late Thursday evening before he named a longtime ally, Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, as his nominee. Tajani gave a pro-Europe patina to what is an increasingly an anti-Europe coalition.
Hours earlier, Berlusconi held a unity rally in an ancient Roman temple with his coalition partners, Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, a post-fascist candidate fresh off a trip to Hungary to visit Orban.
Meloni argued that only their right-wing grouping had enough votes to secure a government and that a vote for any other coalition would bring “chaos.”
Salvini talked about putting Italy before Europe and how tired he was after toiling for forgotten Italians. Berlusconi then wiped his partner’s brow with a handkerchief.
Berlusconi, seated between his allies, made a show of holding their arms as he insisted that he would keep his promise and “absolutely” stick with them after the vote.
But it is not clear that he will.
“These elections are not elections but polls since nobody will win,” said Lucio Caracciolo, editor of the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes.
The election itself is expected to result in an inconclusive muddle, as it is unlikely that any party or coalition will reach the 40 percent threshold necessary to form a government, which could take weeks of haggling.
While some politicians think the usual Italian muddle is not such a terrible idea in such unpredictable times, there remains the danger that no governing coalition can be put together. In that case, the president could either appoint an unelected government without influence in Europe or call for another election.
“It is the total collapse of the party system,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, a senior adjunct professor at the Bologna Center of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“No stable government or reliable party leaders creates an unstable Italian situation, no government for several months creates a bad situation for Europe,” he added.
Roberto D’Alimonte, a political scientist at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, agreed.
“That is the worst scenario for Italy and for Europe,” he said.