Votes polarised in Italy poll

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LEFT-WING candidates had a strong lead last night after Italy's mayoral elections, while disillusioned former Christian Democrat voters defected en masse to right-wing parties - the neo-Fascists in the south and centre and the Northern League in the north.

Exit polls in the six principal cities that voted for mayors and city councils indicated that Italy's new majority voting system, in use only for the second time, is polarising the once-fragmented political scene into left and right-wing blocs.

The centre, which consisted mainly of the disgraced former governing parties, has effectively collapsed. The Socialists, Social Democrats, Liberals and Republicans have already almost disappeared. Now the Christian Democrats, who have ruled Italy since the war and still appeared to have retained at least part of their support despite the scandals, are disintegrating too.

In all six cities the leading candidates were supported by left-wing alliances, usually involving the former Communists, Greens and various new reformist groups which could well combine before long into a broad-based left-wing party. But the biggest single parties were the neo-Fascists in Rome and Naples and the League in the north - although they are largely without allies and their candidates did not come first.

The elections, involving more than 11 million voters in 424 towns and cities, three provinces and the region of Trentino Alto-Adige, are seen as something of a dress rehearsal for general elections early next year. But Italian politics is still in a state of flux following the collapse of the discredited old political class. There is uncertainty as to what will come next. Last night's picture was already different from that of the first municipal elections after the scandals, in June. Then Italy appeared divided into three, with the League winning in the north, the former Communists in the centre and the Christian Democrats in the south.

Political commentators have predicted that if the Christian Democrats do badly in these elections then Mino Martinazzoli, the party leader who has been trying to relaunch it as a clean, honest Catholic party, may resign and its remaining members split - some joining the right-wing parties, others moving to the left.

This appears to have happened already in Trieste, where some Christian Democrats allied with the left-wing candidates, others with a more right-wing group.

The country's political complexion has nevertheless become more difficult to assess, now that the old proportional system has given way to majority voting. Municipal elections are especially complicated because mayors are elected directly, and separately from party lists. The mayor automatically gets a weighted majority in the council, even if his list is not the biggest.

Thus the personality of the candidate can strongly influence the outcome of elections. The left-wingers, particularly the former Communists, have shrewdly chosen candidates with wide popular appeal. The League, whose members are mostly completely inexperienced, and the Christian Democrats who have trouble finding untainted figures, have on the whole fielded weaker candidates.

The League's appeal is aimed at a middle class fed up with its tax money going to the central government in Rome and helping to support the poorer and organised crime-ridden south.