Over the next few days between 90,000 and 100,000 electoral ballots will be posted to the homes of Italian-Australians who are eligible to vote in the Italian general elections this weekend.

Since 2001, Italians abroad who are registered on the external electoral register (or AIRE) are eligible to vote in Italian elections and referendums, though the fact is not widely publicised. Italians in Australia are part of a wider electoral college known as Africa-Asia-Oceania-Antarctica. This college is allocated one member of the Chamber of Deputies and one senator.

The four parties/movements standing in the electoral college relevant to Australia are the Democratic Party, the People’s Freedom Party (Silvio Berlusconi’s party), the centrist coalition With Monti for Italy and the social media organisation Five Star Movement, launched by former comedian Beppe Grillo. The incumbent deputy for the Democratic Party, Marco Fedi, is standing again after winning the seat in 2006 and again in 2008. Pundits expect that Fedi will win again, though with a smaller majority.

The other remaining seat in the electoral college is the seat for the Senate, which appears to be a more open contest between the Democratic Party and Berlusconi candidates under the banner of the People’s Freedom Party.

While up to 100,000 ballots will be distributed to eligible voters in Australia, only 35,000 are expected to return their ballots to the embassy and consulates with a valid vote. Many Italian-Australians simply destroy or throw their ballots away.

Australia accounts for approximately 100,000 voters of the 160,000 on the electoral roll in Africa-Asia-Oceania-Antarctica electoral college. There are about 3.5 million Italian voters living abroad, and they account for a total of 12 Chamber of Deputies seats and six Senate seats. Especially in the Senate, this bloc can be a game changer. Expats’ votes are recorded through a further three electoral colleges: Europe, South America, and North and Central America.

Italian media reports indicate that the election could be close, especially for the Senate, and that therefore the expatriate vote could be decisive, as it was in 2006, when Berlusconi lost as a result of the vote of the expatriate community. In the last two elections, in 2006 and 2008, the winning candidates in the Australian electoral college have been those associated with the Democratic Party – that is, the centre-left. The Berlusconi candidates will again struggle to win either of the seats in this electorate, although it could be a close call for the Senate seat between the centre-left and the Berlusconi candidate.

The predictions for the Italian elections scheduled for February 24 and 25 remain close and inevitably will involve coalitions. Berlusconi’s return to politics and reclaiming control of his PDL (People’s Freedom Party) has narrowed the gap, and the much-acclaimed centre party/movement led by former prime minister Mario Monti “With Monti for Italy” is losing popularity as a result of severe austerity and a declining economy. The Democratic Party is likely to gain the most votes, but not enough to claim a majority. The winning coalition must control of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Failure to do so will most likely require a return to the polls.

The Financial Times claimed these were the most important elections in Italy in 30 years. This might be an exaggeration, but they are important.

Firstly, they are crucial because the markets are ready to pounce and punish if the result is not a clear one. Secondly, February 24 and 25 could spell the end of Silvio Berlusconi as a politician, which is no minor consideration. Thirdly, this could be the beginning of a new centre-right alliance, almost a return to the past days of a Christian Democracy, with Monti at the helm.

Many throughout the world will be looking at the results of these elections with some trepidation. Election polls indicate the Democratic Party will have the most votes, but it is by no means clear that it can gain both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. In the circles of the European Union, the finance and stock markets, they are hoping Monti can be a part of the new Italian government in some form or fashion.

Few are giving Berlusconi much of a chance of a political comeback, and many are relieved by this. But whatever happens in these elections, Italians are bracing themselves for more austerity and sacrifice.

*Dr Bruno Mascitelli is an associate professor and lecturer in European studies at Swinburne University of Technology