Never in almost half a century has the outcome of an election been so unpredictable. With opinion polls banned for the past two weeks, a high proportion of undecided voters and the effects of a sensation-packed, over-emotional election campaign hard to discern, there was no knowing what - if any - government would emerge.
After the clamour of the campaign was silenced on Friday night for the statutory day's meditation before voting, Italy's constitutional leaders appealed for reflection and responsibility.
President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro said the time of mud-slinging was over and the country must come first. The Prime Minister, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, as he went to vote, said he hoped Italians had meditated on 'past experiences and the true interests of the country'. Giovanni Spadolini, Speaker of the Senate, said the 'life and the future of the country are at stake'.
The dangers have been painted in lurid colours by both right and left in what became a highly polarised and dirty campaign. Silvio Berlusconi, the tycoon who controls half of Italy's national television networks and a huge publishing and advertising empire - which he has used uninhibitedly to promote his campaign - has claimed that a victory for the left would mean the end of freedom and democracy, with political trials, prison and exile for the government's enemies.
The left has made him out to be a dangerous demagogue with sinister links to corrupt former politicians, the Mafia and conspiratorial Freemasons, while non-left experts have warned that his promises to slash taxes, create one million jobs and raise pensions could have a disastrous effect on the economy.
Turnout yesterday was lower than at the last elections two years ago: 32.3 per cent by 5pm compared with 38.9 per cent. That could merely be the effect of warm, sunny spring weather and much more time available than usual to vote. Polls close at 10pm tonight.
The first voters appeared to be unfazed by the new voting system, which is partly proportional and partly along British first-past-the- post lines and involves three separate ballot papers.
The system, the result of a compromise in the old parliament, many of whose members could not bear to give up the old ways, is expected to produce confused results. The first task of the new parliament is likely to be further electoral reform.
The new system has forced Italy's many parties to form alliances, albeit shaky ones, and voters basically have to choose between a right, a left and a smaller centre. It is generally expected that none will get an overall majority.
Baffled voters, page 8
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