Confusion and uncertainty reigns as the great moment approaches. The euphoria which accompanied the clang of prison doors and the thud of political heads rolling has given way to a greyer reality. The old villains have gone but, with skeletons rattling in cupboards on both the left and the right, are the 'new' forces as new as they seem? With old ideologies and loyalties dead, many Italians are unsure who to look to now.
The unmasking of the old regime, the collapse of the post-war system and the new electoral laws give Italy a chance to become a modern, European country like its northern neighbours. The elections will be a vital test: will Italians opt for parties which promise, if not blood, sweat and tears, at least a realistic and disciplined approach to its economic and other problems? Or will they be seduced by a TV tycoon's promises of a quick and easy way to a 'new Italian miracle?'
Will the South, in particular, vote for honest representatives or merely recycle the old system of patronage, votes-for-favours and Mafia power under new party labels? How much change do Italians really want?
It is impossible to predict the outcome seriously. Under the new laws, polls are banned in the final fortnight of the campaigns. The last ones had Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia the biggest party with around 26 per cent of the vote (35 per cent if you believe his own) and his right- wing alliance, which includes the Northern League in the north and the neo-fascist-led National Alliance (AN) in the south, as the biggest bloc.
Since then there are suggestions that the small centre alliance, put at around 16 per cent, and possibly the left have been picking up support. But the proportion of undecided voters is still high - estimated at anywhere from a quarter to a half. And although some public opinion institutes have tried, it is difficult to translate these percentages into actual seats, given that the constituencies and the voting system never existed before and much depends on the quality of the candidates.
Moreover, the three main blocs, or 'poles' as they are called, are primarily electoral alliances rather than pre-packed coalitions. They could easily break up when called on to produce a government programme. It is hard to imagine, for instance, the hardline, anti-Nato Rifondazione Comunista, one of the eight members of the left-wing alliance, staying in a coalition dominated by the PDS, the former Communists who are anxious to establish their credentials as a sensible, moderate, mainstream party. And even if Mr Berlusconi does as well as his polls predict, it remains to be seen whether he could put together a government. There seems little realistic chance of the federalist Northern League sitting down at a table with the hated nationalist AN, even though both are allies of Mr Berlusconi (though not with each other.)
One of the centre's leaders, Mino Martinazzoli of the Popular Party (the former Christian Democrats) has indicated he would be prepared to form a coalition with the left if there should be no clear majority. But others in the centre lean to the right and, put under pressure from one side or the other, it could split.
The most plausible prediction is that no single 'pole' - neither left, centre or right - will gain a viable majority on its own and that forming a government will prove very difficult. This appears to convince the parties too, several of whom are already suggesting an 'institutional' government, on the lines of the present one, to tide the country over until another round of elections can be held, probably with improved electoral laws.
The elections, in fact, are most likely to prove an important stage in, rather than the end of, Italy's transition. The new electoral system, although imperfect, is already beginning to work. Most of the 14- odd parties have been forced to make compromises and join alliances to survive. With time, especially if it becomes a pure majority system, these could develop into political alliances and eventually Anglo-Saxon-type parties. But the old proportional-system mentality and party pride die hard.
For the first time, candidates are tramping round street markets, knocking on doors and shaking hands. Posters, pamphlets and campaign kitsch are at a refreshing minimum. Many candidates are having to dip into their own pockets to finance their campaigns. For, apart from the fact that the parties - the old ones now stripped of the vast profits of corruption - have no money, the new electoral laws severely limit campaign spending. Parties and candidates have been raising money through suppers, collections and appeals to the faithful or by borrowing from banks, knowing that a certain amount will be refunded by the state on the basis of their results.
The burning issue in the last stages of the campaign has been Mr Berlusconi himself. He is under fierce and constant attack from his opponents, and also the League, for alleged links to the Mafia and the past regime, his membership of the P2 masonic conspiracy, his companies' huge debts, his use of his vast television and publishing empire in his campaign and his possible motives for seeking power. At the same time, magistrates have been investigating his brother, Paolo, and some of his top executives, all of which, he says, is an attempt to prevent him from winning.
At the same time his staff claim, and there is some evidence to support this, that this actually works in his favour. Many voters, particularly those who like his slick media image as the 'new man' and saviour of Italy, may well vote for him out of sympathy.
Owner of the biggest television network outside the United States, the second biggest publishing empire in Europe, plus huge retailing, property, insurance and other interests. One of the richest men in the world, he is now campaigning for election at the head of his own, instant party, Forza Italia.
Sleek, suave, smiling with unshakeable confidence in himself, he promises to keep the 'Communists' out and achieve a 'new Italian miracle', claiming that one so successful in business is needed to make the country rich again. He promises tax cuts, higher pensions, lower spending, state deficit cuts; experts say his policies don't add up. Before he entered politics, the right was in disarray; he formed an alliance with the Northern League in the North and the far-right National Alliance in the south, which may well emerge the biggest bloc.
Founder of the Northern League, the first protest movement which paved the way for corruption investigations. A rough-cut political genius, he voiced the resentment in the industrious North at the burden of maintaining what he perceived as a parasitical South. Initial talk of 'secession' evolved into the aim of a loose federation. He is unlikely to get it but has influenced other parties which now advocate decentralisation.
He led demands for good, efficient government and a market- oriented, Thatcherite economy. His appeal proved limited to the heartlands of the North and he is now losing voters to Berlusconi.
A revolutionary whose violent , vulgar language thrilled his followers, Bossi appears unable to evolve into a statesman. His role, if the League should enter a government, is unclear.
Former governor of the Bank of Italy who was called in to head a transitional administration to steer the confused and otherwise ungovernable country towards elections. By continuing the strict financial discipline of his predecessor, he restored international confidence and saw through important legislation, particularly vital electoral reforms. For the first time in decades, Italy had a prime minister dedicated exclusively to the efficient running of the country.
He is not standing but, without being asked, his name was bandied about on the left as the prime minister of a future left-wing government. Although of progressive leanings himself, he refused. Now he is being mentioned again, as the head of a second transitional government if - as seems quite likely - the elections fail to produce a viable government majority.
The man who could possibly, with Berlusconi's help, lead Italy's neo- fascists out of the political wilderness. Bespectacled, yuppie-like, decent, well-mannered and liked - grudgingly - even by leftwingers, he is the acceptable face of the far right. He has transformed his party from a bunch of nostalgic die-hards and skin-headed thugs to that of a European, Gaullist grouping. He places Fascism firmly in 'history', says only democratic methods are thinkable now and declares himself 'patriotic' rather than 'nationalist'.
He established himself with his campaign, narrowly lost, for Mayor of Rome, but remains, with the possible exception of Alessandra Mussolini, Benito's granddaughter, the National Alliance's only acceptable face. But, he says, 'the wolves are waiting to pounce the moment I put a foot wrong'.
Electoral reformer who used referendums as battering rams to break down the old, stagnant system. The son of a former Italian president, he saw that many of Italy's ills rooted in the ultra-proportional electoral laws and organised two overwhelmingly successful referendums, in 1991 and 1993, which led to reform. They made him a symbol of a new, clean political life and he dreamed of a mass centre-left party to go with the new system.
For all his personal prestige this slow-spoken, persistent Sard lacked flair and has remained a general with next to no army. Attempts to form and lead alliances, first on the centre-left, then on the right, failed and he and his small Pact for Italy fetched up in the Centre, allied with the cleaned-up rump of the Christian Democrats, now the Popular Party. He is their joint candidate for prime minister.
Leader of the Democratic Party of the Left, the one-time Communists, who flies by the seat of his pants. He is no strategist and no statesman, is given to U-turns, arouses immense affection rather than admiration among his own, has no charisma and is sometimes the despair of his colleagues and is not a seen as a prime minister. And yet . . . it was he who insisted the party change its name and shed its Communist heritage well before the Berlin Wall fell, he who kept it together on its journey to the political centre, who persuaded it to swallow a rigorous economic policy, presided over last year's local election victories and who is leading an alliance which is more harmonious than the right. He sees himself as Christopher Colombus, heading for the New World. In his bumbling way, he might just get there.
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