For a country that has so much going for it, in the way of lifestyle, landscape and flair, Italy has an infuriating knack of doing just the wrong thing. And the fear must be, as Italians prepare to vote in elections that are as crucial for the European Union as they are for Italy, that the country is reverting to type.
Over 15 months, Mario Monti's technocratic government managed to stem the worst of the initial economic crisis and lay the foundations for much-needed reforms in the teeth of often fierce opposition. That in itself is a feat that should not be underestimated. Without a government with a popular mandate, however, there was no prospect that these changes would actually take hold. Not unreasonably, Mr Monti decided the time had come to restore democracy. After Monday, though, he may find himself regretting that decision – along with many of Italy's friends and neighbours.
An election campaign that began in a low-key, almost reluctant way soon turned bad-tempered and rough. The opinion polls, before they went into two weeks of pre-election purdah, suggested a close but also fragmented result. A complicating factor is that control of the two houses of parliament could go separate ways. Whether the polls are right or wrong, though, this election holds two dangers. The first is that the vote will be so dispersed as to necessitate weeks of deal-making and that the resulting government will be as weak and unstable as Italian governments used to be. The second is that voters, apprehensive about the future, defy the forecasts and plump for the familiar embrace of Silvio Berlusconi.
Nothing can be ruled out. The best result would be a convincing vote for the centre-left, producing a solid coalition in which Mr Monti agreed to play a role. This would at once maximise Italy's chances of building on the tentative achievements made and maintaining international confidence, while finally consigning the 76-year old Mr Berlusconi to history. Alas, it is hard to be optimistic on either score.