Italy's revolution looks to Milan for a lead: Rome braces for local elections backlash from city where magistrates smashed Craxi power base

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MILAN, Italy's business capital and birthplace of its democratic revolution, now looks ready to launch another onslaught on the lingering power of the old political parties.

The likely victory of the Northern League, or of other protest and reform groups, in tomorrow's local elections in the city where the corruption scandals were first uncovered, would have an immense psychological impact on the parties still entrenched in parliament and in local and regional councils. 'It would be a very powerful shock for the government in Rome,' said Giulio Anselmi, the deputy editor of the Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera.

The most likely winner is the Northern League and their candidate for mayor, Marco Formentini, who is the movement's floor leader and an experienced former Eurocrat and top regional administrator. But it could be a close race with Nando dalla Chiesa, a popular figure who heads a vaguely left-wing list composed of the anti-Mafia grouping La Rete, Greens and former Communists. Polls indicate that there will probably have to be a run-off in two weeks' time.

Milan is only one of more than a thousand towns and cities where nearly 11 million Italians will be voting tomorrow in municipal elections destined to give an important reading after the political scandals and also the car bombs placed, it seems, in the hope of halting the process of change.

The elections are also the first test of a new voting system - itself a result of the scandals - in which for the first time voters will directly elect their mayors and in most cases (but not in Milan and the bigger cities) by a majority system. This is designed to make the mayors and their administrations directly responsible to the citizens instead of their party colleagues and to break the stranglehold of the parties on local government.

But Milan is special. It was here in the huge fascist-era Palace of Justice that courageous magistrates opened the first investigations into political corruption, smashing the huge power base of the former Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi and setting off a chain of other investigations all over the country. Its political class was wrecked more than any other and popular revulsion against the system is at its deepest here. The League sees Milan as the most important staging post on the road to the conquest of Rome, to which it aspires.

Marco Formentini paints the option in apocalyptic terms. If the League does not win, he says, 'the political parties will be in power for 10 more years. It will be the end of Italy . . . we will not be able to remain in Europe.' In fact the alternative is more likely to be Nando dalla Chiesa, a lecturer in sociological economics. His campaign blurb does not mention it, but his greatest asset is the fact that he is the son of the revered carabinieri general, Alberto dalla Chiesa, who successfully fought the Red Brigade terrorists in Milan and was assassinated when sent to do the same to the Mafia in Sicily.

Badly battered, the Christian Democrats have brought Piero Bassetto, a respected former leader, out of retirement although few find him a convincing sign of renewal. Gianpietro Borghini, the former Socialist mayor, is bravely campaigning again under the massive handicap of having been the last mayor picked by Bettino Craxi. Mario Segni, the electoral reformer and leader of what could become a major post-revolution party, failed to get the candidates he wanted and is backing Adriano Teso, a competent but little-known candidate put up by local industrialists. Angela Bossi, hostile sister of the League's leader Umberto Bossi, is running at the head of a League splinter group.

Once municipal elections were an extravagant ritual staged by the parties, but now there is a thrill in the air. Able at last to choose their own mayor instead of having him picked by Mr Craxi, ordinary Milanese have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the fray, campaigning, forming groups, asking questions. 'People have rediscovered a taste for politics,' said Mr Anselmi.

And indeed, in Milan today the great appeal is the freshness and the sincerity of the ordinary people who - amateurs that they might be - are taking their city back into their own hands. Nevertheless a huge question mark hangs over the city's future. While the candidates look attractive, their movements have fuzzy aims and many people have doubts about their ability to govern well.