It’s cold and wet in Milan, which won’t help the turnout (which has
been down the last two elections, but is still one of the highest in
Europe). Italians are voting today (Sunday) and tomorrow morning for
both houses of parliament, thereby deciding the fate of the government
of Silvio Berlusconi.

This is proportional representation in action. It’s odd for an
Australian to see a vote for (say) Berlusconi advocated by a poster
with a large black cross through his party’s symbol – it doesn’t look
like a positive message. But that’s how you vote: no preferences, just
a cross on the symbol of the party you support. The parties are
allocated seats in proportion to their votes.

Ballot papers (one for each house) display the symbols of about 15 to
20 parties or groups (it varies throughout the country as not all
parties stand in all regions). But most voters will choose parties
aligned to one of two broad coalitions: Berlusconi’s “House of
Liberty”, or “The Union” of opposition leader Romani Prodi.

The core of each coalition is basically moderate. Berlusconi, for all
his bluster, is no ideologue (think Rupert Murdoch for comparison), and
his Forza Italia has provided fairly conventional (if unimpressive)
centre-right government: its most outrageous measures have been
directed to furthering Berlusconi’s own interests, not some ideological
program. Prodi’s Olive Tree group is if anything even more centrist.

But with the relatively pure form of proportional representation that
the government has controversially reintroduced for this election, the
result is likely to be close. That means that whoever wins will need
the votes of some of their more extreme fellow-travellers. That’s where
things get interesting.

House of Liberty includes Umberto Bossi’s Northern League, which is
campaigning against immigration and dreams of an autonomous “Padania”
containing most of the country’s industrialised regions, and also
Gianfranco Fini’s “post-fascist” National Alliance. In the worst case,
Berlusconi may even need the support of Alessandra Mussolini’s Social
Alliance, whose posters proclaim “Move to the centre? No thanks!”

Prodi, on the other hand, has the wary support of the unreconstructed
(“refounded”) Communist Party, whose hammer and sickle is instantly
recognisable. While Prodi and Berlusconi are trying to create a
two-party system, the result may be a much more complicated affair.