It found the old, disgraced parties overthrown and humiliated all over the country. In their place triumphed the Northern League, the former Communists, the anti-Mafia La Rete, reformist groups and independents: mostly new and untried forces swept into their place by a new voting system and by an irresistible demand for clean, efficient administration.
It was the most dramatic round yet in Italy's democratic revolution, all the more so because, although change had been foreseen, its dimensions were quite unexpected. It immediately brought demands from Umberto Bossi of the League and Leoluca Orlando of La Rete for speedy reform of the electoral laws for the national parliament, and general elections as soon as possible to bring it into line with the new scene in the country. The majority in parliament, Mr Orlando charged, now only represents 20 per cent of the voters.
The elections, which involved roughly a quarter of the Italian electorate, left the country effectively divided into three. The northern municipalities, including Milan, Italy's business capital and the birthplace of the corruption investigations, were almost all dominated by the federalist Northern League. Towns in central Italy, traditionally the country's Red Belt, turned to the former Communists, now the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS).
In the south and Sicily the Christian Democrats remained the biggest single party but in innumerable places its candidates for mayor were overtaken or seriously challenged by left-wingers, members of the anti-Mafia La Rete, independents or leaders of local lists. 'The vote has left us with an unrecognisable country,' declared the PDS party organ, l'Unita.
'We are living through a change of regime,' said the Corriere della Sera. 'The citizens have asked once again to be able to continue legally and calmly on the path they have taken.'
For the first time in Italian post- war history inhabitants of 1,192 towns and cities were voting directly to elect their mayors, previously nominated by leaders of the ruling parties. Those with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants - more than a thousand of them - were voting by a majority system, many of them for the first time.
Few of the candidates won the necessary 50.1 per cent of the vote to be elected outright, so in most places the two leading candidates face a run-off on 20 June. In many places the run-off is between two reform candidates, rather than between a new face and an old one. The competition for allies in the second round has already begun.
The markets and the lira wavered somewhat yesterday as the official results began to come out. There is no knowing whether the new mayors and their councils will be capable administrators, and whether the new groupings can turn from protest movements into responsible governing parties.
The changes were starkest in the north where the Northern League, with 32 per cent, proved by far the largest party in the bigger centres using the more easily measurable proportional system. Of the disgraced ruling parties, the Christian Democrats saw their vote more than halved, from 22.7 to 10.4 per cent. The Socialists, even more besmirched by the corruption scandals, were almost annihilated. Their vote plunged from 17.2 per cent to 1 per cent.
In Milan, the powerhouse of the revolution, the Northern League's candidate, Marco Formentini, came out on top with 38.8 per cent, ahead of Nando dalla Chiesa of the anti-Mafia La Rete, allied with the PDS and the Greens (30.4 per cent).
Surprisingly, in Turin the League candidate, Domenico Comino, came third, less than a percentage point behind Valentino Castellani, of Mario Segni's reformist Democratic Alliance, the PDS and other Greens, and below Diego Novelli of La Rete, who combined with a Green list, pensioners and the hardline Riformazione Communista. The League, stunned by the setback, promptly demanded a recount and started proceedings to have the vote annulled, charging that a tiny rival League group had illegally diverted some of its votes.
La Rete, in fact, has done remarkably well considering that it still only commands about 3 per cent of the overall vote in places with proportional voting. Founded by Leoluca Orlando, a former Christian Democrat mayor of Palermo as a protest movement against the Mafia, it is a curious mixture of radicals, Catholics and Communists. Although it could be expected to do better in the south, it has had surprising successes in the north, probably thanks to attractive candidates and well-struck alliances.
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