Next week Italy will have a new parliament, and the polls have been putting Romano Prodis centre-left LUnione consistently ahead of prime minister Silvio Berlusconis Casa delle Libert (CDL). Since the campaign began in earnest in January, LUniones advantage has varied between almost six per cent to just under four per cent, with its only real worry being the number of undecided voters or abstainers. There is another uncertainty for everyone in the guise of a new electoral system and the first-time vote for Italians who live abroad. But first the issues.

Until the middle of March, the single most important issue the state of Italys economy was hardly mentioned. Most of the debate focussed introspectively on the campaign itself: how much airtime was being given to Berlusconi? To Prodi? To the others? Partly through luck and partly through good judgement, Berlusconi was often able to divert attention away from money matters to something more superficial. On the day that the national statistics office ISTAT published figures showing that Italys economy had zero growth last year, headlines either celebrated or bemoaned the fact that the prime minister had addressed the United States Congress and that one Italian television channel had broadcast the whole speech live.

Then, starting with the first televised debate between the leaders of the two coalitions on 14 March, economic matters crept on to the agenda. A few days before, the prime minister had had to face the leader of the Communist party, Oliviero Diliberto, who presented him with a workers pay slip for 500 on television, but few people were up that late to see it. In the prime time clash between Berlusconi and Prodi there were a lot of figures and not much concentration of ideas. Berlusconis insistence that everything was going well for Italy and the Italians rang hollow, while Prodis promises of difficulties being overcome by dialogue between government, unions and employers sounded rather more realistic.

Then major divisions followed. First, that epitome of the Milanese establishment, the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, declared its support for Prodi and LUnione. Then Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the president of Confindustria (the biggest employers organisation, the confederation of industrialists) and boss of Ferrari and Fiat, criticised the governments record and earned himself a serious ticking off from Berlusconi who accused him of speaking for himself and not Confindustria. After Prodi won applause for his electoral programme from the Confindustria annual meeting, Berlusconi called off his appearance, scheduled for the second day of the conference, due to medical reasons, only to turn up unannounced with what seemed to be a claque of followers. He then delivered a stinging attack on the big businessmen in favour of the smaller ones and a personal attack on the vice-president of Confindustria, Diego della Valle owner of the luxury leather company Tods. There is a paradox of a big businessman and leader of what started as a business-friendly party attacking big business when a supposedly centre-left leader is applauded. This is one of the many contradictions of the campaign. The unions on the other hand have been mildly in favour of the centre-left, avoiding any hint of stridency which might frighten the centre.

The role of the Church and the issues dear to the Vatican have been much clearer but even here, the divisions are not explicit. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), told Catholics what they should vote for or against: civil unions are out; financing of religious schools, protection of human life from conception to its natural end and the legitimate family based on marriage should be supported; teaching Islam in schools is uncertain. But if that sounds like implicit support for the centre-right, Cardinal Ruini avoided supporting either side and emphasised the countrys economic difficulties. There was enough in his speech to allow some of the centrist part of the centre-left to agree with him.

There were a whole lot of issues that were hardly aired during the electoral campaign; despite the third anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq and a posthumous gold medal to one of the Italian security guards killed there, there was almost no discussion of Italys role in Iraq or in the wider foreign and security policy framework. Nor was there any debate on the possibility of radical Islamic terrorism, even though one attempt on the Milan underground was reportedly foiled in mid-March. The alleged killers of a senior Calabrian politician were arrested during the campaign but mafia was not on the agenda. The prime minister was indicted for bribery during the campaign along with his English lawyer but the event had more coverage in the British press than in Italy. Political ethics were not on the agenda either.

Finally, there is the new electoral system. Introduced in November, it was supposed to give succour to the ailing centre-right coalition by making life more difficult for the smaller centre-left parties to win seats. It is a return to a proportional system but, unlike the pre-1993 system, today voters have no possibility of choosing their party representative. The electoral lists were established by the parties a month ago. All in all the new system means more power to the party hierarchies, more division within coalitions as allies fight each other for their share of the total coalition vote, and the inclusion of unpresentable extremists in a desperate attempt to garner every last vote.

Another first are the constituencies for the c. 3 million Italians living abroad and now entitled to vote: 12 deputies and 6 senators elected in continental districts, a unique constitutional arrangement.

Italians will be using the new electoral system for the first time on Sunday 9 and until midday on Monday 10 April. Exit polls should begin by the late afternoon and provisional results will be known during the night. Even if Berlusconi loses, he will still be the only democratically elected prime minister to have served a full parliamentary term. No mean feat.

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