The votes on the first day of the Italian elections look to be favoring center-left candidate Romano Prodi. But voters seem to be voting against Silvio Berlusconi rather than for Prodi.
Romano Prodi could ride a wave of anti-Berlusconi sentiment to victory
Observers would be forgiven for thinking that Italians were voting Sunday in a referendum on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, rather than a parliamentary election.
Berlusconi was fighting for his political life Sunday in the face of a groundswell of support for his rival Romano Prodi.
Prodi, dressed in a sober blue suit, cast his ballot at 10:00 UTC with his wife Flavia in his home city of Bologna, northern Italy. "I slept well very well last night and today it's sunny and people are voting calmly. I hope everything goes as steadily and as serenely as possible," said the former EU Commission president.
Berlusconi, the first prime minister to take a government to its full term in Italy since World War II, was applauded by dozens of his supporters as he voted shortly after 1:00 pm in his home city of Milan, accompanied by his 95-year-old mother, Rosa Bossi. He made no public statements.
Turnout by midday, four hours after polling opened, was reported at 17.6 percent by the interior ministry. Total turnout in Italy's last general election five years ago was slightly more than 81 percent.
As bells tolled across Rome calling people to mass on a bright spring day, hardly anyone seemed to be thinking about the merits of Berlusconi's center-left challenger Prodi.
"We have to get rid of Berlusconi. That's why I voted for the center left," said Daniele Cialente, a 43-year-old civil servant.
Cristoforo Martini said after casting his ballot: "I've always voted for the left, but this time I'm doing it really to defend democracy in my country. Berlusconi is a buffoon, on the verge of fascist."
In the industrialized north, a right-wing stronghold, the prime minister was apparently garnering plenty of "yes" votes.
"Berlusconi has done positive things for the family," said Monica Bell'oglio, a dental hygienist with two children in tow at a polling station in Milan. "And I think that as a business executive he has a spirit of initiative that is more appropriate for governing."
But even in Milan, the self-made billionaire's home town, dissenting voices could be heard.
Fabio Fasanella, who works at an Italian branch of the French bank BNP Paribas, told reporters that he voted for Berlusconi's Forza Italia party "because I believe in their values."
He went on to add, however, that Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, head of the right-wing National Alliance, the second largest partner in Berlusconi's coalition, may be "the man of the moment."
"He has more international vision. He's more credible overseas than Berlusconi -- he's a serious man."
Italians split over incumbent PM's record
Even right-wingers want Berlusconi out
Back in Rome, at a school in a southern suburb where polling stations reported a steady stream of voters, a young doctor who gave her name only as Francesca was of the same view: "I'm voting for the right, but not for Berlusconi. I'm voting for the National Alliance because I see myself as part of this ideology. I'm even for the death penalty."
Then she added: "I hope Gianfranco Fini will have more votes than Berlusconi and that he will be our new prime minister."
Another Roman voter, an engineer in his early 40s who gave his name only as Edoardo, said: "I won't miss this chance to send the center-right coalition packing. This coalition has carried out disastrous policies."
While he recognized that "there will be a lot of difficulties for the left if it wins," he said: "Let's hope that if they signed a program they'll try to respect it."
Berlusconi's power and approach a turn-off for some
Berlusconi surpassed himself with the "Communists boil babies" comment
Edoardo's wife Stefania chimed in: "I don't like politics, but I am for the weak. I don't like the shows of force that we have seen from the Berlusconi government. Look at the job contracts, which are more and more precarious. We're going in the wrong direction -- look what's happening in France."
While unemployment has decreased under Berlusconi, it is unstable for many. In particular, one in two new-wage earners under 30 is on a short-term contract.
Some voiced indignation over Berlusconi's brash manner, especially his use of vulgarity at the expense of left-wing voters. "Even if I'll be worse off than I am today, I voted against Berlusconi. I'm indignant over the way he treats people, and calls them 'bloody idiots'. It's unacceptable," said 70-year-old Anna after voting at a school on the outskirts of the capital.
She was referring to the campaign's most infamous quote, uttered last week by Berlusconi to a conference of small business-owners: "I trust the intelligence of the Italian people too much to believe there are so many bloody idiots around who would vote against their own best interests."