MILAN, Italy – Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, which has the best chance of winning Italy's election on Sunday, wants to boot out 600,000 migrants and pump cash into Italian pocketbooks. An opponent, the Five Star populist party, promises an online canvass of its members every time a major decision arises, in an experimental exercise of hyperdemocracy. And the ruling center-left party is tanking, even though Italy's economy looks rosier than five years ago when it took power.
Italians head to the polls Sunday in Europe's most closely watched election this year. And in a bitterly divided campaign — and with more than a few shades of U.S. debates — voters are animated by issues of migration and a nagging sense that Italy's post-crisis economic recovery has made life better for the richest without touching the citizens below.
The winner will help shape Europe's direction at a time when the European Union is contending with threats to rule of law in its member states Hungary and Poland and negotiating a bitter divorce with Britain. And because Italy is a main gateway for migrants into Europe, the decisions it takes about how to treat those who reach its shores will reverberate throughout the continent.
But if Italians agree they don't want the status quo, they are split about the best direction for their country, which is the fourth-largest economy in Europe. Polls suggest the likeliest outcome is a Parliament too splintered to form a workable majority, leading to a center-spanning caretaker government or new elections and months of deadlock.
There could also be surprises — such as if the surging far-right Northern League party gets more votes than its more centrist coalition ally, a prospect that could bring to power Euroskeptic leaders who have warned that Islam is taking over Italy.
"In this chaotic situation, the possibility of more chaos is very likely," said Fabio Bordignon, a political-science professor at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo.
Here are a few hot topics:
The Five Star Movement
Since the last election five years ago, the anti-establishment party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 has become the biggest force in Italy and tops the opinion polls. Yet its members have struggled to transform themselves from swashbuckling outsiders into a group that could plausibly hold power, and they have shown mixed results when they have captured local governments. The final polls before a 15-day blackout period ahead of the election gave them about 28 percent of the vote, well short of the roughly 40 percent needed to capture Parliament.
What happens to migrants?
More than 620,000 migrants have arrived in the country since 2013, and former Prime Minister Berlusconi has said that immigration is a "social bomb ready to explode in Italy." If the election goes Berlusconi's way, he'll have the chance to try to defuse the situation. But his plan — to try to deport nearly all of those who have arrived — has come under heavy criticism for being inhumane. The pressure of new migrant arrivals has eased since July, after Interior Minister Marco Minniti struck a deal with local Libyan leaders to halt people-smuggling across the Mediterranean. But anger remains, as evidenced by a shooting rampage against people with dark skin in a central Italian town last month.
A Berlusconi comeback?
The longtime leader and media magnate pioneered the mixture of entertainment and politics that helped Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency. But he was written off as politically dead after he was forced from office in 2011, amid the economic crisis and scandals involving graft and "bunga-bunga" sex parties. Tax fraud convictions bar him from office for another year. Yet he is a likely kingmaker.
Far-right Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has a pierced ear and a genial, everyman style. In a political landscape starved of charismatic leaders, he is one of the most gifted. There's even an outside chance his party will garner more votes than Berlusconi's, which could put him on top as a candidate for prime minister. If that happens, he would be the first far-right populist to lead a Western European nation since 1945. He's even more committed than Berlusconi to kicking out migrants.