Italy voted in a constitutional referendum which is being closely watched for further signs of anti-establishment sentiment in Europe.
The vote, called by center-left PM Matteo Renzi, is formally on plans to streamline parliament but is expected to be used as a chance to register discontent.
Populist parties support a No vote.
The turnout on December 4 referendum has been very high by Italian standards – about 60% on average.
Nearly two-thirds of the electorate has voted in prosperous northern Italy but the turnout was much lower in the south.
Voting began at 07:00 and ended at 23:00 local time.
PM Matteo Renzi, who has said he will resign if he loses, is set to address the Italian people at midnight.
In brief, the reforms include reducing the power of the Senate. Its members would be cut from 315 to 100, with most drawn from mayors and regional representatives.
Matteo Renzi, 41, says the reforms would speed up the cumbersome law-making process in Italy, which has had 60 governments since 1948.
Opponents say the proposals would concentrate too much power in the prime minister’s hands.
Some 50 million Italians have the right to vote in the referendum – many voters are fed up with years of economic stagnation.
An opinion poll in November gave the No vote a lead of at least five percentage points. But many Italians are thought to be still undecided.
The No campaign in Italy has been spearheaded by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo. It wants a referendum on whether Italy should keep the euro.
Populists, including the Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant Northern League, would receive a boost from the prime minister’s defeat.
If Italy votes No, it would follow a similar trend seen with the UK’s vote in June to leave the EU, as well as the rise of the anti-immigrant Front National in France and populist parties elsewhere (along with Donald Trump’s unexpected win in the US presidential election).
The possibility of Matteo Renzi falling from power has reignited concerns about financial stability in the eurozone’s third largest economy.
If Matteo Renzi does lose, it is still not entirely certain that he will be out of power.
President Sergio Mattarella could ask Matteo Renzi to form a new government or appoint a technocratic prime minister to serve until elections due in 2018.
Italian comedian and leader of the Five-Star Movement party Beppe Grillo has been sentenced to a one year in jail for slandering a science professor.
Prof. Francesco Battaglia said that he had been threatened and his car vandalized after Beppe Grillo, who leads Italy’s second biggest party, criticized him for backing nuclear energy.
Beppe Grillo, who is unlikely to go to jail, also faces damages of €50,000 ($56,000).
He suggested people were afraid his party was getting close to government.
Beppe Grillo also likened himself to two other historical figures who had spent time in jail, Italian anti-Fascist campaigner Sandro Pertini and South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela.
“If Pertini and Mandela ended up in prison, I can go there too for a cause I think is just and that has been supported by the overwhelming majority of Italians,” he wrote on his blog.
Francesco Battaglia said the maverick leader should carry out community service, just as ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi had done, and should take more care of what he said because of the large number of Italians who listened to him.
Beppe Grillo publicly insulted the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia professor at a rally in 2011, after a TV appearance in which Prof. Francesco Battaglia had supported nuclear energy.
“I’ll kick your backside and throw you off TV,” Beppe Grillo said, urging his supporters to refuse to pay their TV license fees.
Beppe Grillo, who was the driving force behind the Eurosceptic, anti-austerity protest party, is gradually handing over the reins of Five Star to a group of younger leaders.
The Five Star Movement is currently second in opinion polls behind PM Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party.
Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose Five-Star Movement (M5S) defied expectations to come third in last weekend’s elections, has ruled out a coalition with Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc.
Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies but fell short in the Senate.
Beppe Grillo said he expected Pier Luigi Bersani to agree a deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL).
The inconclusive polls have pushed up borrowing costs for the government.
On Wednesday, the Italian treasury sold 4 billion euros of new 10-year government bonds on the financial markets at a yield of 4.83%, up from 4.17% at its last sale in January, and 2.5 billion euros of new five-year bonds at a yield of 3.59%, up from 2.94%.
The latest rates are seen as bearable, but that the rises signal that investors want to see a strong Italian government, committed to economic reforms.
It is certainly possible that borrowing costs will rise further if the political uncertainty drags on for a long period.
Beppe Grillo said he would not support any new government and he expected fresh elections to be held within a year.
“Today in Italy, what will happen is what happened before. The right and the left will get together and will govern a country of rubble that they are responsible for,” he said.
“It will last a year. One. Maximum. Then there will be elections again. And once again, in the elections, the Five-Star movement will change the world,” he added.
Beppe Grillo, whose M5S defied expectations to come third in last weekend’s elections, has ruled out a coalition with Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc
Beppe Grillo, 64, said the M5S would decide whether to support specific legislation on a case-by-case basis.
Any attempts to persuade the movement to take part in a government were fake, he asserted.
Beppe Grillo also rejected the suggestion that he was inciting popular anger, saying he should be thanked for giving angry people hope.
“There was no hope. It was an anger without hope. It is anger without hope that creates violence,” he explained.
“But anger with hope is a different kind of anger, an optimistic anger, it is not negative. We are containing this rage, so they should thank me. It is a democratic rage that is needed to go forward.”
On his blog, Beppe Grillo also published a mocked-up film poster depicting Pier Luigi Bersani as a Dead Man Talking, based on the 1950 Italian comedy, 47 Morto Che Parla.
“Bersani is a political stalker,” Beppe Grillo wrote.
“It’s been days that he has been bothering the M5S with indecent proposals rather than resigning [the leadership of the PD], as anyone else would have done in his place.”
The Democratic Party and its centre-left allies won a narrow victory in the Chamber of Deputies, but the Senate appears split with no party in control.
Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is the second biggest bloc in the upper house. The seats under Beppe Grillo’s control in both houses could therefore prove crucial in making any coalition government viable.
On Tuesday, Pier Luigi Bersani outlined a series of policies for a PD-led government which appeared to mostly be in line with M5S’s manifesto.
He said any groups backing the government would have to vote for it in the confidence motion required when a new administration takes office, and urged Beppe Grillo to “assume his responsibilities”.
Meanwhile, a German opposition leader has made waves by describing Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi as “clowns”.
The Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck, told a rally in Potsdam that he was “shocked to a certain degree that two clowns have won” the Italian elections and made it clear he was referring to the two party leaders, calling the former prime minister “definitely a clown with a special testosterone boost”. Silvio Berlusconi has been embroiled in a series of sex scandals.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano cancelled a dinner with Peer Steinbrueck after learning of his remarks, a spokesman for the SPD candidate said.
Giorgio Napolitano is still due to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday.
Both Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi campaigned against the austerity measures imposed by Italy’s technocratic Prime Minister, Mario Monti, which were supported by Angela Merkel.
European markets and politicians have reacted anxiously after Italy’s general election produced a stalemate between centre-right and centre-left blocs.
France and Germany urged continued reform, while Spain described the result as a “jump to nowhere”.
Italian markets fell sharply while others in Europe and around the world opened down.
Centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi said fresh elections should be avoided, and called for a period of reflection.
With all domestic votes counted, Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left bloc won the lower house vote but has failed to secure a majority in the Senate. Control of both houses is needed to govern.
A protest movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo won 25%, but the centrist bloc led by current PM Mario Monti came a poor fourth, with about 10%.
The outcome of the election, which comes amid a deep recession and tough austerity measures, was so close between the two main blocs that the margin of victory given in interior ministry figures was less than 1% in both houses of parliament.
The winning bloc automatically gets a majority in the lower house. But the same is not true in the Senate, where seat allocations are decided by region and can conflict with the national vote.
European politicians reacted with a mixture of calm and concern.
European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly said the EU expected Italy to “honor its commitments” on debt and deficit reduction, and other structural reform.
“We clearly hear the message of concern expressed by Italian citizens,” he said at a news conference.
“The Commission has full confidence in Italian democracy and… will work closely with the future government towards the re-launch of growth and job creation in Italy.”
French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said the result “creates problems” but would not undermine the European single currency.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, meanwhile, urged Italy to continue its reforms, and called for a government to be formed “as quickly as possible”.
But his Spanish counterpart there was “extreme concern” about the financial consequences.
“This is a jump to nowhere with positive consequences for nobody,” Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said, according to Associated Press news agency.
European markets and politicians have reacted anxiously after Italy’s general election produced a stalemate between centre-right and centre-left blocs
Shares and the euro fell as the outcome of the election became clear, amid concern that the reform agenda would be delayed.
Italy’s FTSE MIB index initially fell 4.7%, while London’s FTSE 100 shed 1.5% and share markets in Frankfurt and Paris also fell more than 2%.
In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.55% and Asian markets lost between 0.7% and 2.2%.
The yield on Italian government bonds rose sharply, implying markets are more wary of lending to Italy.
As Silvio Berlusconi conceded to his opponents in the lower house, he said that everyone should now reflect on what to do next so that fresh elections could be avoided.
“Italy must be governed,” Silvio Berlusconi said.
“Everyone must be prepared to make sacrifices.”
He would not do a deal with Mario Monti’s centrist bloc, saying that the prime minister’s poor showing was down to popular discontent with his austerity measures.
Silvio Berlusconi, 76, left office in November 2011, facing claims of economic mismanagement as the eurozone struggled to contain Italy’s debt crisis.
Italians have had more than a year of technocratic government under Mario Monti. But his attempts to reduce spending caused widespread public resentment and his decision to head a centrist list in the parliamentary elections attracted little more than 10% of the vote.
In a surge in support, Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity Five Star Movement attracted more than a quarter of the vote, making it the most popular single party in the lower chamber.
Correspondents say this was an extraordinary success for the Genoese comic, whose tours around the country throughout the election campaign – hurling insults against a discredited political class – resulted in his party performing well in both chambers.
Early exit polls from Italy’s general election show a lead for the centre-left bloc led by Pier Luigi Bersani.
The polls suggest Pier Luigi Bersani’s alliance has taken around 34% of the vote for parliament’s lower house, ahead of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right group with 29%, Sky Italia reports.
Beppe Grillo’s protest movement is projected to take nearly 20% of votes.
The two-day vote is seen as crucial for efforts to tackle Italy’s economic problems, as well as for the eurozone.
The election was called two months ahead of schedule, after Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for Mario Monti’s technocratic government.
The first results based on partial vote counts are due in the next few hours.
If the exit polls are confirmed, they would echo the opinion polls prior to the election which made Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) a consistent frontrunner at nearly 35%.
Pier Luigi Bersani, a former Communist, has pledged to continue with the tough reforms of Mario Monti’s technocratic government, but suggests current European policy needs to do more to promote growth and jobs.
Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) centre-right alliance had narrowed the PD lead in the final weeks of campaigning – and may yet prevent Pier Luigi Bersani from winning an overall majority in the Senate, which is being fought on a region-by-region basis.
The fiercely anti-establishment Five Star movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo drew wide and growing support during the campaign, and threatened to be the major upset for the election.
Early exit polls from Italy’s general election show a lead for the centre-left bloc led by Pier Luigi Bersani