A random poll of Romans and foreigners living in Rome conducted during a week in mid-March mainly foresaw a close finish precluding a clear majority and strong government in this months general election.

A common denominator among Italians was the tired resignation of those who had seen it all before. The most jaundiced was Aldi Alcide, ticket-tearer at the Augustus cinema in the historic centre. Theyve changed the electoral system, plumping for the proportional vote, but it wont change a thing. Its not kept out all those little parties, which I thought was the idea. We should have the American or British system, with a clear choice between left and right.

But anyway, what would even that change? he continued. Politicians from whatever side are all inconsistent and false. Theyre all for packing their pockets and even then they always manage to do the wrong things.

Silvana Orru, a Sardinian domestic help from Cesano Romano who, together with her husband Franco, voted for Silvio Berlusconi in the last elections, now had her doubts. I dont trust anybody any more, she said. Orru lives in a usually right-wing zone to the north of Rome. Oh yes, everybody around here knows who theyre going to vote for. I work from morning till night so I dont follow these things much. All that had struck her about the campaign was Berlusconi walking out of his television interview with Lucia Annunziata of RAI. She was too provocative, she said.

Jim McManus, a lecturer in computer sciences at Romes La Sapienza University, spoke of Berlusconis superficial neo-liberalism and Napoleonic egocentricity, as well as of the hard-sell approach slogan after slogan after slogan, during the campaign. How can they impose themselves like that? I took it as an affront. He saw a lot of interest in the election because people see theres an important decision to be made. The outcome would be dictated by a small majority of floating voters, but he had no real feel for the final result.

Dressed up as if just off for a wedding as always, blonde Fernanda Ruggieri presided majestically over her newspaper kiosk on one of Romes main demonstration routes. The left will get in. But why did people vote Berlusconi the last time? Because theyd already had the Sinistra, but then he [Berlusconi] made a mess of everything. Even so, just the same people weve seen before will get in. Blair in England and Zapatero in Spain have changed things. What will change here? Nothing!

Mark Davison, an assistant at the Lion Bookshop in the historic centre, made precisely the same point. Its the same lot as in the 1990s. It seems to be built into the system here somehow that you cant be young and be taken very seriously. Political tradition here doesnt seem to enable a pool of new people to come to the front. And the campaign itself: The posters in the street verge on the ridiculous. Its all more superficial than in England, an appeal to basic fears.

Dr Ernesto Ilardi, a dentist from the smart Corso Trieste area, doubted whether it would all lead to a government able to govern. [The centre-left leader, Romano] Prodi will get in by a small majority. Hell fall within three or four months and Fassino, Mastella or Casini* will then take over. People in the medium or low income bracket are hurting. Theyll vote in anybody for the sake of change...

The burly Giancarlo Casa is owner of the restaurant La Gatta Mangione close to the terminus of the no. 8 tram off the Gianicolense in the Monteverde area. Around here weve families from the small and medium bourgeoisie. Its the most communist area of Rome, with now a lot of the cultural elite as well, and yes, theyre interested in the election. They know its between the left and right even if they dont understand very much, but they see it as a real fight because the campaign this time has been so primitive and rough.

At the stage door of the heavily unionised Rome Opera, evasive Stefano was behind the desk, but there was no evasiveness about where he stood. Of course I know who Im going to vote for. Weve just been through a five-year nightmare, in close contact with an infectious disease as the writer Indro Montanelli once put it. Lets hope it doesnt come back. Yes. Yes. The risk is of one side winning by only a small majority. Whoever wins must win well. Itll be no good otherwise. Lets hope were not going backwards, to governments lasting only seven or eight months.

With the unions so strong at the Opera, was everybody at the theatre for the left, especially after the cutback in funds decreed by the government? I wouldnt know, he said.

I dont know what to expect, confessed Margaret Farrell, a former employee of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In any case it will be very close and if the left does win, they wont have an easy time In this campaign, it seems to be only image that counts, putting on a show. There has been no debate. I dont think people have a clue as to what its all about. So if the left concentrates on their programme from now on, I think theyll stand a good chance. But most people only have a very superficial interest. They see it only from a personal viewpoint: Is this or that okay for me?

*Piero Fassino of the Democratici di Sinistra (DS);

Clemente Mastella, Sec. Gen. of the Unione Democratici per Europa (UDEUR); and Pierferdinando Casini of the Unione dei Democratici Cristiani (UDC), speaker of the Chamber of Deputies.