Enter the Glaswegian: could a quarter-Italian expatriate scupper Berlusconi's chances?

Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right and the centre-left, headed by Romano Prodi, are fighting a close contest. Mr Prodi has been consistently ahead for months, but recent attacks on his taxation plans have struck home with voters. Opinion polls are banned for the last fortnight of the campaign, and Mr Berlusconi claims that he is now in the lead.

So the extraordinary experiment of this election, which will see 12 seats in the Camera (lower house) and six in the Senate go to Italians abroad, could lead to a candidate with an Italian passport who lives hundreds of miles away having a crucial say in things. Someone like Ron MacKenna.

The 44-year-old son of a Scottish-Italian mother and Scottish father, Mr MacKenna says that he does not think he has much chance of winning. He only began campaigning three weeks ago. He is driving blind: there are 10,500 people with Italian passports living in Scotland, a tiny fraction of the two million-strong "Europe" constituency (which includes Turkey and the whole of Russia), "but I've no idea how to reach them".

All the other candidates - around 100 for "Europe" - are in the same boat, however. Voting, which is only by post, must finish today, one week before the two consecutive polling days for Italians at home.

The 3.5 million Italian citizens living abroad were given the right to vote after the general election of 2001. This is the first time they are getting the opportunity to exercise it, and no one has any idea how many will bother. Mr MacKenna, who holds dual British and Italian citizenship, is already a busy man. The restaurant critic of the Herald newspaper and a columnist for other Scottish papers, he is also a criminal lawyer.

He is running as a Christian Democrat, "because although it is only a rump of what it used to be, it is the only party Italians abroad really recognise. It's the only party that has resonance."

The democristiani have been in Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition for the past five years. "It's only a flag of convenience," Mr MacKenna says. "I don't agree with any of their policies. Berlusconi doesn't go down well here at all."

After taking the plunge and announcing his candidacy three weeks ago, "it took us two weeks to get the list of the electorate in Scotland". Campaigning for this election has been restricted to appearances on television.

The main issue he has been concentrating his campaign on is the property rights of Italians living abroad, many of whom, like Mr MacKenna himself, have second homes in Italy.

"Resolving property disputes in Italy can be soul-destroying and frustrating because the court system works so slowly," he says. "I've also been proposing enlarging consular services, giving us direct access to ministries. "We're really just flying the flag. It's all a bit of a joke."

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