Italian Election '94: Italians quietly baffled on polling day: Voters struggle with ballot changes that mix majority and proportional systems as well as new parties, names and symbols

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Quietly, with the hysterical clamour of the election campaign now mercifully behind them, more than 48 million people yesterday began casting their votes to elect the first parliament of the new Italy.

The turn-out on the first day was a little lower than it had been at the last elections but this could have been because many were tempted elsewhere by the warm sunny weather and because they had more time than usual to vote - up until 10pm local time tonight. It was too soon to say whether the indecision that had gripped many people up to the last minute had actually stopped them from voting at all.

The elections are the most crucial, and the most unpredictable, since those that returned Italy's first freely elected parliament after the war and placed Italy, despite its large Communist Party, in the free, Western world. They mark the end of that First Republic, which effectively collapsed under the weight of corruption and misgovernment, and the beginning of the Second.

President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, voting in Novara, 30 miles west of Milan, said they were 'decisive for the history of the country'. Giovanni Spadolini, speaker of the Senate, said 'the life and future of the country are at stake'.

Voters were grappling with a highly unfamiliar situation. The old proportional system has been replaced by one that is three-quarters British-style majority system and one-quarter proportional, and is unlikely to work satisfactorily. The old ruling parties and the old, discredited faces have disappeared, now there is an array of new names, new symbols and new and disconcertingly fractious alliances. The basic issues and differences have been masked during the campaign by sensational reports of alleged corruption, Mafia involvement and other murky doings, and highly emotional charges of plots and foul play.

One could also have been forgiven for thinking the Cold War was still in full swing. Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing media tycoon-turned-politician who had waged a virulently anti-'communist' campaign, warned in a television interview on Friday night that should the 'Communists' (who are now actually a social democratic party) win, there will be no true freedom or democracy any more. 'They will control the television . . . the press, the judiciary, the economy.

'It will end in a terrible atmosphere with a government brought into being by means of trials, perhaps jail and perhaps exile.'

His opponents, on the other hand, say that Italy would be like a South American country under a populist dictator with free rein for the Mafia, corrupt politicians and total government control of the media if Mr Berlusconi won.

In the tense and extremely heated clash between left and right during the campaign, the small, weak centre was virtually left out. It may, however, emerge stronger from the elections than it looked before opinion polls were banned 18 days ago, as people who are unable to bring themselves to vote for either side may choose them as a compromise. In any case if - as seems very likely - neither the left nor the right wins an overall majority, the centre seems destined to play an important role in the formation of a new government.

Few Italians delude themselves, however, that their vote will transform the country overnight. It is now clear that these elections are a vital stage in a process that still has a long way to go and may well involve further electoral reform and another set of elections. 'The Second Republic will not be born tomorrow evening,' commented Paolo Mieli, editor of the Corriere della Sera, yesterday. 'We are only just at the end of the first half of a match which we had to interrupt to give fresh legitimacy to parliament. Now the second half should start in which institutional reform must be completed. And at the end of this process, one hopes, we can really choose, in a more peaceful atmosphere, between a left and a right which are both predominantly moderate.'

'The Second Republic is the child of the earthquake,' said Ezio Mauro, editor of La Stampa, 'but not of reconstruction . . . The new system, as it is emerging now, is not able to guarantee that equilibrium which is indispensable to govern a complex society.'

The Milan football team, owned by Silvio Berlusconi, suffered a rare setback yesterday. Paolo Di Canio, of Napoli, struck the winner as Milan slipped 1-0 in only their second league defeat this season. Mr Berlusconi may still be celebrating a third successive Italian championship, however, since his team lead the Serie A table by seven points. European football, page 30

(Photograph omitted)