It is rare to witness a mould-breaking* political event but the centre-lefts primary elections in October to choose the leader of the Unione coalition fitted the bill. There was no revolution, to be sure, no blood on the streets or dramatic celebrations either; Italys government has not changed. But in the normally glacial pace of change in Italian politics, the primaries showed refreshing and visible movement.

In the mid-19th century when Italy first became a nation state, prime ministers emerged from a huddle of political notables with no link to the albeit limited number of voters. After world war two, the parties took over the king-making role but the voters had as little direct say as before. Even when the election system changed in 1993 and a leader for the coalitions of parties on both the right and left became essential, the way of choosing that person remained unconnected to any popular voice.

On the right, Silvio Berlusconis position, his money and his media, made him the only possibility to head the coalition. On the left, there was a vague and non-institutionalised consensus among the different parties as to whom would lead. That consensus could be withdrawn and in 1998 it was. Romano Prodi, who was prime minister at the time, was forced to resign and the government fell because of lack of support from some of the leaders of the parties in his coalition.

So Prodi wanted a greater guarantee this time round that his own supporters would not pull the rug from under him once again. For a time last year he and some of the other centre-left leaders thought that primaries were a populist and dangerous way to choose a leader and they feared that the wrong candidates might stand. Then Prodi found that his former ally and leader of his natural party, Francesco Rutelli of the Margherita, was less than committed to unity within the centre-left coalition. Prodi again risked finding himself without a party and liable to be stabbed in the back. So primaries came back onto the agenda.

As Prodi said on the morning after the October vote: The primaries were successful beyond our wildest dreams. No one really knew what would happen, how many people would vote or how they would vote; expectations were low and a million voters was reckoned to be a good turnout. Instead almost 4.4 million voted, three quarters for Prodi. More than 18,000 Italians abroad voted, as well as a good number of foreign residents in Italy.

One of the most remarkable features of these primaries was that they were a rare example of Italian civil society functioning, and functioning very well. Last year there were mutterings that the state should organise the primaries because in Italy there is a firm belief that private organisations have neither the competence nor the honesty to do the job. However, these elections showed that the centre-left Unione had both. The popular support was such that instead of each voter paying a nominal 1 to cover the costs of the operation, more than 40 million was raised, an average of 10.5 per voter.

That in itself justifies the operation and it will form the basis of a campaign fund. More important even than the money is the human capital that has been built up. The 16 October vote was also a demonstration for centre-left voters to stand up and be counted.

The voters had two messages: the first was to show their antipathy towards Berlusconi; the second was a warning to the leaders of the centre-left not to invite disaster once again by fighting among themselves.

The leader of Rifondazione Comunista, Fausto Bertinotti, came second in the ballot, but with less than 15 per cent of the vote he cannot claim to have more than a small minority support. Moreover, by taking part in the primaries, Bertinotti implicitly accepted the winner as overall leader. The same should also be true for the other candidates who, in theory at least, should fall in behind the confirmed winner. However, Clemente Mastella, former Christian Democrat, and present leader of the UDEUR who won 4.5 per cent, began crying foul before the polls had even closed. In contrast, after winning 3.3 per cent of the vote, Antonio Di Pietro of the Italia dei Valori party gave Prodi his full backing.

Prodi now has to put together a programme for next years general elections. Until now no one has dared mention what the Unione would promise. Everyone reckoned that the real elections were too far away and that commitments were too risky. There is therefore going to be a lot of very hard bargaining over the next few months as Prodi tries to make the Unione into a real union.

The Unione will also have to come to terms with the new electoral bill if it becomes law. If it passes, there will be a return to the old system of proportional representation and parties with only a small percentag of the popular vote will be excluded from seats in parliament. This will mean that the centre-left coalition, which is made up of more smaller parties than the centre-right, will have to make tactical changes to compensate for the advantage the new law will give the centre-right.

However, the primaries have shown the centre-right that there is another way of choosing a leader. It seems highly unlikely that there will be a serious challenge to Berlusconis leadership before the general elections next spring, but it will be another matter when he retires. One thing is certain, Italian politics will never be quite the same.