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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 April 2006, 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Italian voters losing political flavour
By Ben Richardson
BBC News business reporter in Reggio di Calabria

In Reggio di Calabria, way down in the south of Italy, the talk is not about the upcoming elections. It's about swordfish steaks.

Woman walks past posters listing political parties
A lot of different political parties doesn't always mean a lot of choice

The best time to eat them is between March and June when the currents change in the waters between Italy and Sicily, forcing the fish to work harder and giving them a more succulent, muscular meat.

During the other months of the year, swimming is easier and the swordfish get fatter and less tasty.

"Just like our politicians," said a lunchtime diner at Da Giovanni's restaurant. "At least the fish leaves a decent taste."

Same old same old

Italians from the south are notoriously wary of their representatives in parliament, especially as unemployment is close to 15% and their economic development has lagged behind that of their cousins further north.

And while they seem even more sceptical than normal in the run-up to the 9 April elections, geography alone cannot be blamed for this outburst of table-top cynicism.

Roberto Formigoni, President of the Region of Lombardia
We have to go back to the people. We have to reconnect
Roberto Formigoni, President of the region of Lombardia

Head north to Lombardia - the region that has the financial hub Milan as its capital and an unemployment rate of 3% - and many of the Calabrian complaints are echoed.

"Politicians change direction like the wind," said Martina Ricciardi, a 19 year-old law student at Milan's Catholic University. "I will go to vote, but only because it is my duty and not because I have faith in the system."

"The young don't have someone to believe in. It's always the same faces," she explained. "Unless we get some new people, nothing is going to change."

Talk to Italians long enough and this lack of options is one of the things that frustrates them the most.

While other concerns include the economy, jobs, and immigration, they are angered by the fact that there seems to be little chance of getting past the political point scoring that has hampered Italy's sporadic attempts at reform.

Shake up?

Battling it out in the current election are Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his rival Romano Prodi, both of whom have a history that voters are finding it hard to look past.

For many, Mr Berlusconi is nothing more than a businessman who has failed to keep his promise of kick-starting the economy, lined his pockets at the country's expense and continually said the wrong things at the wrong time.

To others, Mr Prodi is the economics professor without a political party who failed to save his government from collapsing in 1998 and who also has been investigated for corruption.

The two men head coalitions that contain parties on the fringes of the left and right wings, something that prompts talk of governmental weakness rather than a confidence they will be able to push through difficult, and unpopular, reforms.

"They are two old leaders who have been around for a number of years," said says Guido Tabellini, professor of economics and politics at Milan's Bocconi University. "They are not likely to shake up the system."

In fact, many voters are already talking of who will replace Mr Berlusconi should he lose and who will take over from Mr Prodi should his coalition crumble.

Tune in

According to recent polls, as many as one in four Italians may be undecided about who to vote for and with the election set to be close, these swing voters may hold the key to victory.

One man who is trying to build bridges to his constituents is the President of Lombardia and a key member of the Forza Italia alliance, Roberto Formigoni.

The politician has started an online radio station with the catchphrase "My radio is your radio" that plays music, explains policies and gives listeners a chance to express their views on the state of Italy today.

Woman voting in an Italian election
Left or right, it doesn't matter. What counts is that things improve
Emma D'Agostino, pensioner

"We have to go back to the people. We have to reconnect," he explains from his vast top floor office over a background mix of guitar rock and rap songs.

Not to be outdone, the left-wing L'Ulivo alliance also has been reaching out to its electorate with Mr Prodi, and his main partners Piero Fassino and Francesco Rutelli, clocking up the miles on campaign buses and trains.

They also have a weblink in which voters can send messages of support to "Dear Romano".

Either way

Speak to people across Italy and the majority agree that the country has to undergo a period of difficult change if it is to emerge stronger.

But Italians also want reassurances that the economy will recover, that their pensions and jobs will be safe, and that their children will be looked after.

And despite the passion of those people who are engaged in the political process, for many of their compatriots there doesn't seem to be anyone who can act as a rallying point for the nation.

"Left or right, it doesn't matter," said pensioner Emma D'Agostino as a rain storm suddenly soaks Reggio Calabria. "What counts is that things improve. Simple as that."

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