Dario Fo makes a dramatic play for Milan

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For a man who made his name from the scathing criticism and satire that he directed at those in power, it is certainly a dramatic change of career. But then Dario Fo, Nobel Prize-winning author and 80-year-old subversive, has always loved to shock. And now, after years of deriding politicians for their corruption and lack of integrity, it is he who is fighting to become a candidate for the left in the Italian election.

Promising a radical package of policies designed to combat escalating crime rates and wage war on gas-guzzling cars, Mr Fo faced the first major test yesterday of his bid to become the Milanese candidate of the centre-left coalition when he squared up to four other hopefuls in a primary vote.

"I am no moderate," the grand old man of Italian political theatre proclaimed flamboyantly at a final rally, repeating his slogan designed to attract voters with a promise of innovative solutions to the city's ills of smog, traffic pollution and rising crime. "I am fighting to win."

By yesterday afternoon about 20,000 centre-left voters in Milan were estimated to have cast their ballots in the contest between Mr Fo and three other candidates, Bruno Ferrante, a former police chief, Milly Moratti, sister of the president of Milan's Internazionale football club, and Davide Corritore, an independent. The playwright and actor, whose most acclaimed work, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, satirised Milan's corrupt police force, faces the stiffest competition from Mr Ferrante who maintained a narrow lead throughout the run-up to the vote.

The polls were due to close at 10pm.

Unsurprisingly, given his popularity in Italy and especially in Milan, where Mr Fo has spent the bigger part of his adult life, the political neophyte certainly has his supporters. Appealing to those who want to breathe fresh air into Italian politics, he is seen as having brought honour on his nation with his unexpected 1997 Nobel Prize for literature.

His official endorsements have been thin on the ground - the only political party to do so has been the hardline Marxist Communist Refoundation party, whose maverick leader Fausto Bertinotti's dogmatic rhetoric is held up by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as a reason why Italians should shun the left.

But Mr Fo has won the support of a somewhat more distant, though arguably no less idiosyncratic, figure in European politics. Possibly seeing in the Italian candidate a fellow maverick on the left of the political spectrum, Ken Livingstone has declared his admiration for Mr Fo. The Mayor of London even visited Milan this month, approving the Italian's intention to embrace Mr Livingstone's congestion charge and hoping that "Italians will confine Silvio Berlusconi to the dustbin of history" in a general election to be held in April.

If elected, Mr Fo has said he will wage war on the heavy traffic that has made Milan one of Europe's most polluted cities. "Each year 1,300 people die from smog and pollution costs. 800,000 working hours are lost [in Milan]," he proclaimed. "Immediate action is needed, a block on traffic and increased public transport."