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Italians Cast Votes Amid a Fractured Political Landscape

ROME—Italians went to the polls Sunday in a national election that has underscored themes that have dominated other important votes in Europe over the past year: the disruptive power of populist parties, a fractured electorate and the continued fallout from the migration and economic crises.

The final opinion polls, which were published in mid-February ahead of a two-week blackout, suggested that no group would emerge with a parliamentary majority, an outcome that could usher in a protracted period of political instability and tension in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

Polls close at 11 p.m. local time, after which exit polls will be immediately made public. Full results will be released Monday morning.

Protest Vote
Polls show the 5 Star Movement has gained in popularity ahead of parliamentary elections in Italy on Sunday.

Source: EMG

The election has been a three-way race between Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, an alliance anchored by the ruling center-left Democratic Party and the antiestablishment 5 Star Movement.

The latest surveys showed Mr. Berlusconi’s center-right coalition enjoying a last-minute surge of momentum in the weeks before the vote and possibly emerging as the single-biggest alliance. Polls placed his coalition—which includes the anti-immigrant League and a smaller far-right party that traces its roots to the Italian fascist movement—at about 35%.

The campaign reflected a distinct shift to the right on issues of law and order, immigration and some economic policies, a move that rewarded Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition, which has promised to pass a low flat tax and to expel hundreds of thousands of the migrants who have arrived in Italy in recent years.

During the campaign, Mr. Berlusconi has positioned himself as a bulwark against the 5 Star Movement, which was founded by comic Beppe Grillo.

That stance resonated with some voters on Sunday. Vincenzo Genesi, an 82-year-old retired businessman, voted Forza Italia on Sunday morning in Rome, drawn also by Mr. Berlusconi’s promise of a flat tax.

“They’re the only option,” he said. “I hate the left, and (5 Star) is led by an imbecilic comedian. They’re only a protest vote, and that’s how the Bolsheviks took over in Russia.”

5 Star is forecast to emerge as the biggest single party, tapping deep discontent by voters—particularly the legions of unemployed youth—with the ruling political class. The last polls put its support at about 27%.

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“It’s time to give 5 Star a chance to see what they can do,” said Francesco Vivere, 69, who cast his ballot in Milan for the antiestablishment group. “I was tempted by League, but 5 Star presented more interesting proposals.”

A lack of fresh ideas and fatigue with the incumbent is expected to penalize the Democratic Party, reflecting a broader shift away from the left in Europe. The party won 41% of the vote in 2014 elections for the European Parliament yet could struggle to secure half that in Sunday’s election.

The Democratic Party is “the lesser evil,” said Chiara Bifano, a 43-year-old unemployed resident in Rome, who cast her vote Sunday morning for the center-left party. “I would have preferred not to vote; there’s no party that mirrors my ideas. But it’s better to vote for someone than no one at all.”

The trends in Italy have mirrored those in other national elections over the past year in Europe, where a fractured electorate has rendered governing difficult and mainstream parties have been punished at the polls.

If no party or coalition musters enough support to command a parliamentary majority, weeks or months of haggling would likely ensue.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella could ask the biggest coalition or party to attempt to form a minority government that would rely on outside support from other parties to win votes of confidence in parliament.

If he decides against a minority government—which often prove shaky and short-lived—he could ask the parties to attempt to stitch together a broad, cross-party coalition. If that proves impossible, Italians could return to the polls in the coming months.

The trends in Italy have mirrored those in other national elections over the past year in Europe, where a fractured electorate has rendered governing difficult and mainstream parties have been punished at the polls.

Silvio Berlusconi, leader of right-wing party Forza Italia, waves as he arrives to vote on Sunday. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The issues are especially acute in Italy. The country is the only member of the Group of Seven leading nations whose economy is smaller than it was before the financial crisis, while 30% of Italians are at risk of poverty, up from 26% before the crisis. About a third of young Italians are jobless. Meanwhile, about 750,000 migrants have landed on Italy’s shores since 2011.

In the case of a grand coalition, Mr. Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, the former premier and the leader of the Democratic Party, could break away from their campaign partners and strike a left-right alliance. In that case, Paolo Gentiloni, the current prime minister and a member of the Democratic Party, is a favorite to head such a government, having won accolades both from Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Renzi.

A grand coalition that stretches into next year or new elections in 2019 could open the door for Mr. Berlusconi, 81, to return to elected office. He is currently serving a six-year ban on holding public office because of a conviction for tax fraud; that ban expires next year.

For Mr. Renzi, a grand coalition would help keep him and his Democratic Party relevant as they attempt to revitalize the group.

Handicapping the election results has been particularly difficult because of a new electoral law that allocates a little more than a third of seats in a first-past-the-post system, with the rest doled out proportionally.

—Francis X. Rocca contributed to this article.

Write to Eric Sylvers at eric.sylvers@wsj.com

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