Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Sunday, 13 April 2008 13:21 UK

Palermo heads to the polls again

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News, Palermo

Italy election rally April 2008
Italians are voting for their 62nd national government in 63 years

It is early morning in Palermo, the swallows are criss-crossing the skies overhead and the Giacomo Serpotta primary school has just opened its gates for voters.

Already, a steady trickle of people are ambling across the small square, metres from the city's port.

Italians are well-practised at voting.

The country is heading to the polls to elect its 62nd post-war government after Romano Prodi's broad centre-left coalition collapsed just 20 months into office.

They have to choose between a bewildering number of parties, some newly-named and with fresh symbols.

But despite both major leaders - the centre-left's Walter Veltroni and billionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - campaigning on platforms of change and renewal, Sicilians sigh that the faces and personalities remain the same.

"There has been a constant flow of voters," says an election official who asks to remain anonymous.

Following a recent ruling, no camera phones or recording equipment are allowed inside.

"It's to avoid electoral fraud," she explains. "Before, whoever had promised a vote to someone could take a picture of it on their mobile to prove they had voted that way."

Giuseppe Salerno 13 April 08
People are more malleable here, they're a bit scared of strangers. But with this electoral system...I doubt that whoever wins will actually be able to govern
Giuseppe Salerno, Sicilian salesman

I ask her if this has happened in the past, in this voting station where some 6,000 people will mark their ballot papers.

"It's a bit more of an issue here in Palermo," she nods.

Outside, a rubbish collector sweeps up the coloured campaign cards scattered on the ground in front of the school gates.

Housewives lean out over narrow balconies to see if their washing has dried overnight and three men, dressed in black windbreakers, linger on the square, shuffling and watching.

"We have a constant local police presence to avoid anyone influencing the voters," the electoral official says.

"The papers will stay here tonight - the police will too, they'll actually sleep on-site. The school will be sealed until it opens again for voting tomorrow. And then we won't go home until every single ballot paper is counted."

'Scared of strangers'

Sicilians are also voting for a new president for their regional assembly.

Salvatore Cuffaro, of the small, centre-right UDC party, resigned in January this year after being sentenced to five years in prison following a mafia-related trial.

He insists he is innocent, is appealing the conviction and is running to become a senator for his party in the national elections.

Giuseppe Salerno, a 36-year-old salesman, is one of the few happy to discuss how he voted.

"This area is a bit particular," he says. "People are more malleable here, they're a bit scared of strangers. But I voted for [Mr Veltroni's] Democratic Party, the lesser of two evils. But with this electoral system, that they've never managed to change, I doubt that whoever wins will actually be able to govern."

Reform of Italy's complex electoral system - based on proportional representation - is long overdue.

Critics say it gives disproportionate power to small parties able to hold the coalitions they join to ransom, making the country effectively ungovernable.

It's our duty and our right to express our vote. There's been a massive information campaign so it's all been quite easy, everything has been explained
Anna Bonanno, office worker

Mariolina Cagnina, a 47-year-old English teacher, is exasperated by the political situation.

"Everyone is watching us, looking at Italy, and we don't change. It's been like this for 20 years now - 20 years! I'm so sickened by this country, I'm tired."

How not to vote

The ballot papers themselves have been criticised by politicians on both the centre-left and centre-right, including Mr Berlusconi.

There are fears that people will mark them wrongly, crossing out several symbols for allied parties, and thereby invalidating their vote. But the voters themselves do not seem phased.

Officer worker Anna Bonanno, 33, holds her 11-month old son in her arms as she leaves the polling station.

"We came early as this little one had a bit of a night last night, didn't you?" she says, as Marco stares at her, pale and wide-eyed.

"It's our duty and our right to express our vote. There's been a massive information campaign so it's all been quite easy, everything has been explained."

Police at Palermo polling station 13 April 08
Police in Sicily guard polling stations around the clock

Newspapers, television stations and magazines have shown how to correctly mark the ballot paper and there are also explanatory posters on display in voting stations.

On the Piazza Castelnuovo - a vast central square across town planted with palms - the policemen are far more relaxed.

They stand chatting, joking and smoking outside the Archimede Middle School where wisteria climbs the elegant art-deco structure.

"I voted for the [anti-graft magistrate Antonio Di Pietro's] Italy of Values party," 77-year-old Vittoria di Chiara says.

Her fine grey hair is swept back from her face and she wears pale tortoise-shell glasses: "He's honest. If only Sicily had someone like him. The economic problems of this country are part of something much bigger - it's not just Italy and it's not just Sicily."

Profile: Walter Veltroni
10 Apr 08 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
08 Apr 08 |  Europe

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