'It's a disaster. It's the end of everything we believed in; everything that the left has fought for for so many years,' said Giancarlo Brianza, a young Roman teacher. He was one of hundreds of people gathered in Piazza Navona to watch the latest developments on a giant video screen supplied by state television. As the powerful television lights illuminated the white marble figures of Bernini's fountain, they caught the distress of many of those present.
'I feel a bit poorer tonight,' said one pensioner, asked by a television reporter for his reaction to the news that the right-wing alliance led by the media magnate Silvio Berlusconi was ahead in the polls. His promises of spending cuts have alarmed pensioners and underprivileged alike.
Earlier, Mr Berlusconi was almost mobbed when he arrived in his central Rome constituency to vote. As he descended from his chauffered car, perfectly made up in preparation for the television arc lights, the crowd surged forward, whistling and booing.
A chant went up 'truffone, truffone' - cheat, cheat. And Mr Berlusconi was rapidly hustled into the polling station by anxious minders. Some of this may well have been because the tycoon, who has allied himself with the federalist, some say racist, Northern League, and the neo-Fascist party, was voting in the heart of Rome's Jewish ghetto. But Mr Berlusconi has undoubtedly split the country.
Just on the other side of central Rome, in the vast Piazza del Popolo, supporters of the right- wing alliance were celebrating in the balmy night air.
''It's a great, historic victory for freedom and for modernity,' said Paolo. 'He (Berlusconi) has promised jobs, and that's what we young people want, not all the political chat we've had until now,' he said. Paolo has been unemployed since he left school with the equivalent of A-levels, three years ago. His girlfriend, Giovan na, said: 'I just think he's great. He makes you believe in him.'
Cheers went up as the gathered supporters of the right heard the neo-Fascist leader, Gianfranco Fini, declare that: 'The left is clearly beaten. The centre has been swept away. Forza Italia is the biggest party: this is a historic fact. It cannot be in doubt that Silvio Berlusconi is the leading candidate for Prime Minister.'
Berlusconi faithful were gathering to hear a victory speech at his HQ, but Mr Berlusconi, a master of state management throughout, kept them waiting. 'He's been becoming more like an American presidential candidate all along,' grumbled Gigi Grandi, 45, who admitted though that he had voted for Mr Berlusconi 'because I'm fed up of taxes and red tape'.
Mr Berlusconi has divided Italians between euphoria and despair. There were few people last night who reacted with traditional Italian indifference over possible changes in the ruling class. 'Tonight has changed everything, no one knows exactly what we've done,' Mr Grandi said.
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