Italy's new faces leave muddled voters uninspired

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The Independent Online
'WHAT shall I do?' wailed the woman in the butcher's shop. 'I don't know who to vote for. They are all so awful.'

She is not alone. With two days to go to Italy's most important election for 45 years countless Italians are in a hopeless muddle. New faces, new parties, a new electoral system - many people are bewildered and very few inspired.

The woman in the butcher's shop was lucky: at least she knew they were awful. According to two separate surveys nearly nine out of 10 Italians did not even know last week who the candidates in their constituencies were, much less what they stood for.

Lack of money for electioneering and lack of experience with the new first-past-the-post system that will return three-quarters of Italy's new MPs and senators are partly to blame. Many Italians will still be voting not for the best candidate, which was the object of the reform, but on the basis of allegiance to party or alliance.

Name one of the three main alliances, however, and your friends and neighbours will immediately think of reasons not to vote for them. 'Fascists, racists' (the right); 'Communists' (the left); riciclati - recycled politicians from the corrupt old parties - and 'priest-ridden' (the centre).

Any belief that a bright new Italy will spring ready-made from the ballot box has already worn thin.

A study by the Censis social research centre indicates that the 'recycling' of the old political class is much more widespread than it had seemed. The dinosaurs of the old regime, such as the former prime ministers, Bettino Craxi and Giulio Andreotti and their allies, have all gone. Only 17.5 per cent of the candidates were in parliament before.

But, Censis found, the so-called new faces campaigning under new symbols are actually second- and third-ranking politicians from the past. Almost 61 per cent of the candidates are people who have already sat in regional, provincial or town councils. 'What we have is not so much the entry of civil society (into politics) but a step forward for those who, in the previous political hierarchy were a step behind,' it said.

An infusion of new blood has been limited by the new electoral law which obliges candidates to be linked to some party or political grouping, it added, thus making it difficult for independents to stand.

Another source of confusion has been the tone of the campaign which in the last few days came close to hysteria. The magistrates have been continuing their investigations, and developments which cast shadows over both the former Communist PDS and right-wing tycoon Silvio Berlusconi have been denounced by those concerned as sinister plots designed to ruin their chances.

Mr Berlusconi has been linked in the press directly or indirectly with alleged corruption, the old regime, the Mafia and sinister masonic plots and has been emotionally predicting a 'Communist' takeover and the end of democracy and freedom. When the police turned up at the headquarters of his Forza Italia movement on Wednesday to ask for lists of candidates and members, however, even his opponents agreed that the magistrates' timing left a lot to be desired.

The mudslinging came to a climax in a face-to-face television debate on Wednesday night in which Mr Berlusconi and Achille Occhetto, the PDS leader, exchanged accusations and insults. The whole business, La Stampa commented, 'is a sign of the parties' immaturity in the great test of democracy which these first elections of the new era should be'.

Mr Berlusconi has been a prime attraction in the campaign, not least because of his uninhibited use of his huge media empire to broadcast his promises of miracles, tax cuts and jobs and to set up his Forza Italia which, according to polls, quickly became the biggest party in the country.

But the chances of Mr Berlusconi becoming the next prime minister are slight. His right-wing electoral alliance with the Northern League and the far-right National Alliance looks unlikely to survive the elections and Umberto Bossi, the League's leader, has expressly ruled him out. In the absence of polls - banned in the last fortnight of the campaign - it looks as though no one will win and that the formation of any government at all will be extremely difficult.

(Photograph omitted)