At 3pm on Monday 10 April, I arrived at Piazza Santi Apostoli, the Rome base of the centre-left Unione coalition, for the first exit poll. At 3am the following morning I was still there, having just heard Romano Prodi declare victory for the first time to his supporters and the international press.
Game over? No. In these twelve hours a drama began to unfold which reveals a lot about contemporary Italy, and which may continue to have repercussions for months to come. Both the exit poll and numerous unofficial polls in the two-day, two-part election (chamber of deputies and senate) had put the centre-left ahead by 3%-7%; this figure was very similar to opinion polls conducted between the start of the campaign and a fortnight before polling-day, when they ceased by law.
Before the exit poll, centre-left leaders and spokespersons had been cautious and restrained. My text messages requesting pointers or tips elicited polite refusals: "wait for the first exit poll" was the consistent response. Scaramanzia (the peculiarly Italian form of superstition) was everywhere I was even banned from the offices of Il Manifesto newspaper, where I had spent a gloomy 2001 election night, on the grounds that my presence might swing the odd vote to the right.
Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)
Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:
"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)
"Bossis and Berlusconis last shout?" (August 2003)
"Bolognas lesson for London" (August 2005)
"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)
"Italys election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)
"Berlusconis bitter legacy" (March 2006)
"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)
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All this was swept away after the first exit poll indicated a fairly clear margin of victory for the centre-left. Piazza del Popolo, a short walk from the Unione headquarters, had been designated as the official site for the victory party, an event that Italians do better than anyone. At the party headquarters, activists watched a big screen showing confident centre-left leaders and the doomed leaders of the right. Buffone! Buffone! , the crowd jeered as Maurizio Gasparri, the post-fascist telecommunications minister, tried to offer defiance. A casa! ("Go home!"), they shrieked at the xenophobic Northern League leader, Roberto Calderoli, who had resigned from the government in February 2006 after he wore a T-shirt in the Italian parliament depicting the Danish cartoons.
Somebody dangled a piece of mortadella, the Bolognese sausage which has become an affectionate nickname for Prodi. The crowd swayed and danced to the music. The official van of l'Ulivo (Prodi's current within the Unione coalition) was eventually unveiled, displaying its proud slogan: "Romano Prodi Presidente".
Then the real votes started to trickle in. The atmosphere changed dramatically. It was going to be a close call, after all very close. The results of the complicated voting process which Silvio Berlusconi's electoral law had forced through in October 2005 showed the parties neck-and-neck in senate and chamber alike. The votes of Italians living abroad were starting to look crucial.
A rollercoaster ride
As the night wore on and the mood shifted, an even bigger concern than the result of the election itself became apparent. What was happening on the night of 10-11 April was the apotheosis of Silvio Berlusconi's strategy particularly noticeable towards the end of the campaign to instil fear in the minds of voters. The prime minister's attacks on "communist magistrates", vulgar insults of his opponent and those who might choose to vote for them, and claims that United Nations inspectors were needed to prevent voting fraud, reflected the fact that Berlusconi's reliance on the "fear factor" increased as his hold on power has weakened.
Berlusconi's strategy of fear can be understood only if any notion (current among some political commentators) that he is little more than a joker, a colourful character who has brought Italian politics to life, is discarded. The true picture is far more serious. Silvio Berlusconi, even in defeat, poses a threat to Italian democracy.
The populist Berlusconi is used to ignoring the conventions, structures and norms of conventional politics. His last-minute promises to abolish housing tax and refuse tax, made without any chance of response from the left or any indication of how they would be funded, can be seen as a desperate appeal from a fading leader. Such tactics, which have won support in the past, also look to have swayed at least some Italian voters this time around.
These election gambits also illustrate the difference between a "populist" and "democratic" conception of the people. The populist has a narrow, stereotypical view of the people as a relatively homogeneous entity, whose "ordinary" values (and prejudices) stand in contrast to the "elite" and the subversive alike in Berlusconi's case, the magistrates and the left. Populists like Berlusconi have no time for dissent, pluralism or difference, which they regard as threatening. His late attempts to whip up fears among the electorate fit exactly this model.
The democrat has a different relationship with the people, one mediated through forms of representation and participation, the rule of law and pluralist spaces of dissent. This view, regrettably, has not been sustained by Italy's centre-left parties, which until now have allowed Berlusconi to set the political agenda. It seems almost inconceivable that after five years of a government which has devastated Italy's public life, demonised the same magistrates who cleaned up Italian politics in the 1990s, and eliminated practically all forms of dissent from Italy's debased broadcasting system Berlusconi can question the left's democratic credentials.
What the centre-left should have done, and what the knife-edge election result reveals it has largely failed to do, is to learn from the example of the civil-society networks that have mushroomed in Italy in the last five years.
Also in openDemocracy on Italy under Silvio Berlusconi:
Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?"
Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (August 2005)
Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush " (February 2006)
Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (April 2005)
Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot? " (March 2006)
A future beyond fear
As I travelled through Italy during these years, writing about the Berlusconi phenomenon, I have encountered fear in different forms. At the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 the "punishment" meted out by the Carabinieri was an early warning of the government's intolerance. In Naples, the Camorra embarked on new forms of violence, while the Northern League marked its newfound distance from Padanian nationalism by fomenting new levels of xenophobia and hatred that, alarmingly, often found an echo in the opinions of ordinary Italians.
Yet I also found hope and imagination in many places, from the film director Nanni Moretti's Girotondi network to the Libertà e Giustizia (Liberty & Justice) groups and the extraordinary range of peace organisations. I remember a local bakery in Bologna closing its doors in protest at the launch of the Iraq war in 2003 (which up to 90% of Italians opposed) with the statement that "there will be no brioches or biscotti today"; and Scanzano Jonico, a small town of 6,700 people in the backwaters of Basilicata, going on strike for weeks in protest at the Italian government's decision to dump Italy's entire supply of nuclear waste on its doorstep. In these five years, this proliferating variety of civil-society groups helped keep hope alive.
Italy's election campaign has posed a stark choice facing what is now a very divided and polarised country: Berlusconi's fear against a project of hope best embodied in these civil-society initiatives but which has not yet found mature political expression.
Italy's future remains uncertain. At lunchtime on 11 April, after the remaining votes of Italians living abroad gave him a slender majority in the senate, Romano Prodi declared victory for a second time to a media scrum in the offices of l'Ulivo. In the event, Berlusconi's electoral law seems to have most benefited the centre-left. Il Cavaliere, who remains leader of Italy's largest party, will care little for the irony as he fights to preserve what power he can.
Indeed, the key question remains the legacy of Silvio Berlusconi to Italy's corroded democracy. Romano Prodi talks well about the need for unity and cohesion, for hope and for a new start. A tiny majority in the senate in an Italian political system where each house of parliament has an equal status will make that difficult. But in any case, Italy will find unity only if it can replace its populist leader with a new democratic spirit. The arrest of Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano on the day after the election, after forty-three years on the run, may offer scaramanzia-obsessed Italians (and even foreigners) a signal of the future. Perhaps Italy, at last, can turn fear into hope.