Italian voters went to the polls yesterday for what could be the country's most decisive national elections in 45 years.

At stake is the survival of the Christian Democrat-led four-party coalition, whose leaders have warned of unprecedented chaos if they do not keep a majority.

"Now is no time for experiments," said Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.

The balloting could alter the political landscape more than any other election since 1948, when Italy shunned communism and cast its lot with the West, and is considered important because it is the first election since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Leading the assault on the besieged establishment are a legion of small parties, local autonomy "leagues," popular movements, and unorthodox interparty alliances.

Supporters of smaller parties - from the "leagues" that want autonomy for the rich northern regions to a new southern party formed to combat the Mafia - say the established parties are bogged down in corruption and need to be shaken up.

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