The Christian Democrats, the only former ruling party that had retained some support despite political scandals, saw their voters defect in droves, largely to the Northern League in the north and the neo-Fascists in Rome and Naples.
Left-wing candidates, backed mostly by the former Communists, the Greens and new reformist groups, won or were placed first in the six major cities that voted - Rome, Naples, Palermo, Venice, Genoa and Trieste. The result was a dramatically polarised scene, with the left lined up against the far right and little in the middle.
Political leaders rushed to fill this vacuum. Umberto Bossi, whose federalist Northern League had done less well than hoped, announced 'we are the centre'. Declaring that the movement must revise its strategies, he hinted that it may become more moderate and less provocative, to appeal to practising Catholics after a history of clashes with the Church.
Mario Segni, the electoral reformer, declared that Italy needed a 'new force that appeals to both lay people and Catholics' - his embryonic Pact for National Rebirth. Mino Martinazzoli, the Christian Democrat leader who has been trying to clean up his party and relaunch it as a moderate movement of the centre, announced after a tense meeting that his strategies remained unchanged. It was a 'bitter defeat' he said, worse than expected. But, contrary to predictions that he would resign, he said he was not giving up.
Some members defied him and started gathering signatures for a meeting of the party national council or for a public assembly to debate the reasons for the disaster.
The happiest politician was Leoluca Orlando, the anti-Mafia crusader who was elected Mayor of Palermo with an astonishing 75.2 per cent. 'Palermo has freed itself of the Mafia,' he declared, and joyous supporters accompanied him to the city hall chanting 'Palermo e nostra, non di Cosa Nostra' - Palermo is ours, not Cosa Nostra's.
Mr Orlando, previously a Christian Democrat, was Mayor of Palermo in the 1980s in what has been called the 'Palermo Spring', the start of his and its rebellion against the Mafia and its political accomplices. He left to co-found La Rete, a left-wing Catholic, intellectual reform movement that had remarkable successes in other cities in last June's municipal elections.
The remaining candidates in the big cities, having failed to win an outright majority, face run-offs on 5 December in Rome and Naples against neo-Fascists and against League candidates in Genoa and Venice. The contest looks particularly close in Rome where, with about half the votes counted, Francesco Rutelli, a Green with 39.7 per cent was being challenged by Gianfranco Fini, secretary of the neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement, with 35.4 per cent.
More than 11 million voted in 424 towns and cities, three provinces and the Trentino-Alto Adige region. The League did best in the provinces, all northern, while in Trentino-Alto Adige, which has a large German-speaking population, the South Tyrol People's Party and - a small consolation - the Christian Democrats remained strong.
The results will reinforce pressure for prompt fresh elections, since parliament no longer reflects the political complexion of the country. They will make it difficult for old-guard MPs to dig in their heels any longer. The government appears likely to resign next month and President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro would then be expected to call fresh elections, possibly in March.
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