Italian voters caught between two extremes

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WATCHED anxiously from abroad, more than 8 million Italians go to the polls in the second round of the epoch- making municipal elections tomorrow, many to make an unwanted choice between left and far-right.

Neapolitans and Romans must decide whether they want neo-Fascists Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the Fascist dictator, and Gianfranco Fini as their mayors, or candidates backed by left-wing alliances dominated by the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communists. Genoese, Venetians and Triestini have to choose between left-wingers and candidates for the Northern League.

Uncertainty about Italy's future caused the lira, which has already been falling steadily for some weeks, to plummet on Wednesday and Thursday. From 1,647 to the dollar and 970 to the Deutschmark at the beginning of November, it hit 1,736 and 1,008 in New York on Thursday, but recovered yesterday. Not only were the markets nervous about the course the country is on - neither the left nor the neo-Fascists would be particularly welcome winners - they were also concerned that parliament might not be able to agree on the crucial 1994 budget.

There is even more concern in Israel, where Yossi Beilin, the Deputy Foreign Minister, reportedly told the Knesset that 'the rise of the extreme- right in Italy gives grounds for grave and critical concern'. The successes of Ms Mussolini and Mr Fini in the first round 'should rob not only us of our sleep, but also the Italians'.

About 70 German personalities, including authors Gunter Grass and Christa Wolf and the film director, Margarethe von Trotta, reportedly signed an open letter declaring that 'a neo-Fascist mayor in Rome and the granddaughter of Mussolini in Naples would be a very disturbing signal for German and Europe'. In the Washington Post, Pulitzer-prize winning columnist, Mary McGrory, urged voters to remember what happens when Fascists get to power. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff, has also warned that while Fascism died in 1945, the neo-Fascist MSI party 'has tried in every way to be its heir'.

Opinion polls indicate that Ms Mussolini and Mr Fini will lose, although the contest looks very close in Rome, and the left will win in the major cities. The Rome and Naples polls are being treated with some caution, as some neo-Fascist voters tend to hide their real intentions.

Many moderate Italians find they object to both candidates and some may not vote at all. This situation, unique since the Second World War, was brought about first by the new majority voting system and secondly by the virtual disappearance of the Christian Democrat party, leaving a huge hole in the middle of the political line-up. More conservative former Christian Democrat voters opted for the only other conservative party, the neo-Fascists (except in the north, where they vote for the League), while more progressive ones went left. This creates a misleading impression that Italians, now that the old ruling class has gone, are becoming extremists.