ITALIANS go to the polls today in a long-awaited General Election. Violent, ugly and unedifying have been the key characteristics of the election campaign so far.

If such hallmarks are anything to go by then Italy will most likely be a divided and unsettled place following the uncertain outcome of today’s vote.

“Italians First” has fast become the defining catchphrase of a campaign that has seen the populism and anti-immigrant, post-fascist hard right fuse together in the Italian campaign.

Italian elections are always complicated affairs, but today’s vote could take complicated to a new level, not least by being the first to be run under a new, untested electoral system that encourages parties to form pre-election coalitions.

More than 20 parties are in the ring, but Italian voters are largely split into three political camps, according to recent polls.

The centre-left coalition, dominated by Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and including several smaller parties, polled at 27.4 per cent in the final pre-election poll of voter's intentions.

The Five Star Movement (M5S), led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, polled at 28 per cent, and the party has ruled out entering coalitions with other parties in the past.

Then of course there is the comeback kid of Italian politics, four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who has constructed a right wing bloc teaming up with Matteo Salvini, the far-right candidate of the Lega (League), formerly the Northern League. This last bloc leads the same poll at 36.8 per cent and could end up as the largest grouping in parliament.

As the election drew near watchers spoke of a tense political atmosphere with signs that many Italians feel more confident going to one extreme or the other when they cast their ballot or take their politics on to the streets.

By far the thorny question of immigration has been the core campaigning issue on which most of the parties have focused, often with an alarming rhetoric that has stirred up political ghosts from Italy’s fascist past.

“More than 75 years on, the allure of the far right survives among parts of the population,” explained Sabrina Gasparrini, Secretary General of the Italian Federation for Human Rights, last week.

Last month, a poll conducted by the Demos & Pi research institute looking at the correlation between public opinion of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini and voter intention in today’s election showed that out of the total 1,014 people interviewed, 19 per cent of voters of parties across the Italian political spectrum had a “positive or very positive” opinion of Mussolini. While 60 per cent saw him negatively, the remaining 21 per cent didn’t have an opinion.

“After the horrors of war, no one could dare express fascist ideas but, over time, it seems that people forgot. Politicians started voicing hateful and intolerant views, with no shame whatsoever,” Gasparrini added.

Other human rights activists also see the threat as one set to grow in Italy, egged on by some mainstream politicians.

“Exploiting and pandering to these sentiments, in rhetoric and in policy, present a serious long-term threat to the fabric of Italian society, says Judith Sunderland associate director for Europe at Human Rights Watch based in Milan.

Human rights observers are not alone in perceiving such threats, finding an unlikely ally in Italy’s intelligence services, who in a recent assessment presented to the Italian Parliament, concluded that the rise in extremism, especially on the right, was a threat to national security.

For their part many of the political leaders contesting today’s election, far from shying away from racist and xenophobia overtones, have long since willingly embraced them.

Just over a year ago Salvini, the far-right candidate for the Lega party ominously singled out immigrants, calling for a “mass cleansing of Italy, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, square by square, and through the use of force if need be.”

Then only last month his political ally in the shape of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party sang the praises of an Italian town, Sesto San Giovanni, on the outskirts of Milan, that has expelled nearly 200 migrants, blocked the building of a mosque and unveiled plans to identify every migrant entering its streets through CCTV equipped with facial-recognition technology.

According to the local Forza Italia candidate in today’s vote, the town is “the absolute example for other Italian cities to follow” and is seen as “already carrying out” the party’s programme.

Berlusconi, who is currently ineligible to run for office after a 2013 tax fraud conviction, has kept up his own anti-immigrant mantra by repeatedly saying that migrants in Italy are a “social bomb about to explode”.

According to Daniele Albertazzi, a senior lecturer in European politics at the University of Birmingham, migration has been a contentious issue in Italian elections going back to the 1990s.

“All of that has been used by political leaders very effectively because the discourse never focuses on the millions of people, for instance, who work in northern Italy and keep the northern Italian factories afloat,” Albertazzi told broadcaster CNN.

“There is absolutely no discussion whatsoever about working immigrants, they are invisible.”

It is estimated that more than 600,000 people have arrived by sea in Italy from North Africa since 2013 when Italy last went to the polls, including 114,000 in 2017, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration.

And the debate over immigration has continued to highlight racial tensions ahead of today’s vote.

In a series of incidents reminiscent of Italy’s infamous social and political turmoil that ran from the late 60s until the early 1980s and was dubbed the Years of Lead, violent confrontations have run in tandem with the polarised mainstream politics of the election. Over the past weeks fascists rallied in large numbers in Italian piazzas, often clashing with leftist groups.

Last month Italian police arrested Luca Traini a 28-year-old gunman suspected of carrying out a drive-by shooting spree that targeted African migrants in the central town of Macerata.

Traini, who was draped in an Italian flag and gave the fascist salute when he was captured, had taken part in regional elections for the anti-immigration Lega party last year.

Last month also saw a subsequent attack by leftists on Massimo Ursino, a leader of far-right group Forza Nuova, in which he was bound with tape and beaten by a gang in Palermo the Sicilian capital.

The left-wing attackers, who wore balaclavas, filmed their attack and distributed it to media outlets. In a statement defending the violence they accused men such as Ursino of spreading hate and racism across Italy.

“We tied him up and beat him to show that Palermo is anti-fascist and there is no place for men like him here,” they said.

Raffaele Marchetti, a national security expert at Luiss University in Rome, said such beatings and fights were common in the 1970s but had largely disappeared. Now, however, they seem to be making a comeback.

“Clearly, ahead of the election, there is a situation of tension and people feel more confident to go to one extreme or another,” he said.

There are of course other issues beyond immigration on which the election is being contested. Jobs, the economy and Italy’s place in Europe remain concerns for voters. While the economy is growing Italy remains inundated with economic problems. Young people struggle to find work, national debt is through the roof and banks are saddled with bad loans

Currently unemployment stands at 10.8 per cent, against a EU average of 7.3 per cent, and has remained stubbornly high for the last five years. The proportion of under-25s out of work, which stood at 32.2 per cent in December 2017, is the second-worst in the European bloc. This economic disgruntlement, observers say, has helped fuel an anti-elite, populist rhetoric.

“The generation of people who are below 40 have really had a very bad deal and this is what fuelled the initial success of the Five Star Movement,” says Albertazzi.

“You have really widespread scepticism in Italy that translates into this sense you are powerless and there is nothing you can do to improve your own position,” he concludes.

As for the populist parties impact on Italy’s place in Europe, experts say that while there was a time when they were threatening to call a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro this is now highly unlikely. Most appear to have softened their stance on the single currency.

“They know that the euro is very much disliked. So of course they talk about it, but Italy is not the UK,” insists Albertazzi.

The Italian result, however, remains potentially pivotal for the EU as it tries to regroup after the Brexit vote and push for deeper integration of the eurozone following Emmanuel Macron’s rise to the French presidency last year. Confusion and paralysis in Italy, if not a populist takeover, would represent a devastating blow to that effort.

Given this it’s hardly surprising that Italy’s election is being closely watched both by European neighbours and those further afield.

The Italian daily, La Stampa, broke the news that Donald Trump’s fired chief strategist Steve Bannon had travelled to Rome on Thursday to investigate the populist and far-right parties playing a defining role in the race. Immigration, of course, is one of Bannon’s major political concerns and he has already expressed his support for the anti-migrant, Lega party, which campaigns on the back of the Trump-like “Italians First” slogan.

A certain Vladimir Putin, too, is watching with great interest. Reinforcing Italy’s growing tilt towards Moscow, the Russian president recently dismissed the notion of meddling in the Italian election because, he suggested, the options were so good there was no need to.

For the moment, though, it is the Italians themselves who are calling the shots as they vote today. Italy’s electorate is long used to managing political instability, but giving birth to the country’s 65th government since World War II now looks a particularly tough order. With an unproven electoral system in place and a bloc of undecided voters, many observers believe the country is headed toward a hung parliament.

Whether that proves to be the case, the results will be known early tomorrow, and though ineligible to serve as prime minister, they may well place Silvio Berlusconi in the role of kingmaker.

Such an outcome would bode ill for hundreds of thousands of migrants in Italy.

For weeks now many have been lined up in front of police stations around the country, waiting to renew their residence permits and fearful of what awaits them. Italy’s election campaign has been an unedifying spectacle and what follows in the wake of the result looks set to be much the same.