Italians vote for new national legislature

March 28, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

ROME -- Under sparkling Palm Sunday skies, the vanguard of 48 million Italian voters meandered leisurely to the polls for national elections expected to recast their troubled nation's political future.

The voting for a new national legislature resumes this morning. Interior Ministry officials do not expect authoritative returns before tomorrow, but exit polls should be available by tonight.

Issues weighed less in the campaign than stark left, center and right divisions carved around personalities and their political parties.

In all three camps, there is broad agreement that Italy should remain an integral part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, that its economy should remain a free market with a strong social awareness, that major government-controlled industries should be privatized and that a national government saddled with huge public debts should be made more efficient.

But such general consensus was obscured by campaign vitriol with Cold War echoes.

With many voters undecided until the last minute and no polls published in the past two weeks of the campaign, the outcome is anybody's guess. For the first time, voters chose candidates rather than parties in U.S.-style, winner-take-all voting for three-quarters of the 630 seats in the lower house and 315 seats in the Senate.

"These elections are without doubt a decisive moment in the history of our country," President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro said after voting. Alarmed by the volume and tone of campaign venom, he had called for candidates to tone down their rhetoric.

Because Italians are so disgusted with political parties that have ruled since the war -- all of them tarred by the nation's worst corruption scandal -- they are receptive to new faces who are not members of the "old pals" system.

Most analysts predicted a tight finish between a three-party, right-wing alliance headed by political newcomer Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men, and an eight-party leftist alliance centered around the former Italian Communist Party led by Achille Occhetto.

Mr. Berlusconi, a self-made Milan billionaire, ran on an anti-communism platform and on promises of more jobs and lower taxes.

"Oppressor," he snarled at Mr. Occhetto in a vituperative televised debate.

Mr. Occhetto, who transformed what was once the largest Communist Party in the West into the social democratic Party of the Democratic Left, ran on conservative economics and experience -- his party has administered virtually every major Italian city in recent years.

"Demagogue," Mr. Occhetto snapped at Mr. Berlusconi.

By all accounts, the elections will strip authority from the political center, embodied by the former Christian Democrats, who dominated all 52 Italian governments since World War II.

Decimated and splintered by a corruption scandal that has tarred thousands of politicians and businessmen, the best the Christian Democrats could hope for this time is a junior partnership in a new coalition government dominated by newcomers of either the left or right.

The elections were extended to a second day to allow members of Italy's small Jewish community observing Passover to vote after sundown today.

Fewer than half of the 519 voters registered at Precinct 2397 in the heart of Rome's old Jewish ghetto voted yesterday.

Compared to the venomous campaign, Election Day itself was quiet -- a street festival for many Romans.

No major incidents were reported in a country where electoral high jinks are not unknown. In the past, the dead have been known to vote in southern areas of the country where organized crime plays a major political role.

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