IN the countdown to Italy's March 27-28 parliamentary elections, leading right-wing candidate Silvio Berlusconi asserts that ``all possible and imaginable weapons'' are being used to prevent his victory.
Investigating magistrates are probing allegations that Mr. Berlusconi and a key aide have business connections with Cosa Nostra; no official charges have been made. His foes say the word on the Sicilian streets is that the Mafia is voting for Berlusconi's Forza Italia alliance.
Berlusconi says this is a political attack by judges and Communists (a catchall he uses to describe most of Italy's left). He won a prolonged standing ovation from supporters in Palermo March 20 when he said that the votes he received would be votes against the Mafia.
Before reporting opinion-poll results was barred earlier in the month, Berlusconi and his allies were favored to win.
The Monitor asked voters for their views on what is perhaps the country's most important election in nearly 50 years, following months of judicial probes into political corruption that have discredited a generation of politicians.
Stefano Volpi, a manager for a mail-order business in Milan, supports the Northern League. Berlusconi, who owns numerous TV and print media, is allied with the League in the north and with the neo-Fascist National Alliance in the south.
The League's leader, Umberto Bossi, has proven to be only a thorn in Berlusconi's side, however, saying that he will not support Berlusconi for prime minister (to which the media magnate aspires), and that he will never join a government with the ``fascists.''
Mr. Volpi says he will not vote because he will be abroad during the elections, and Italians cannot cast absentee ballots.
But together with his allies, ``Berlusconi will certainly win,'' predicts Volpi, a cautious supporter. ``Berlusconi is a great man and great with the economy, but I don't want him to confuse his business with politics.''
Critics say this is a serious issue. Numerous personalities on Berlusconi's three national TV networks are giving him free publicity in the final hours of the campaign. On March 21, for example, the Italo-American Mike Bongiorno wound up the popular Wheel of Fortune show here by saying people had asked him if Berlusconi could be trusted.
``I have known him for years and years. He has always respected his commitments. We can indeed trust him, Italy can believe him,'' Mr. Bongiorno said. ``Remember, if Forza Italia wins in a week, a grand period will begin.''
Three unemployed law school graduates sit around a table in a Rome apartment on a Friday night discussing the elections.
Beatrice Baglivo says it has been a lackluster campaign. She hates to think Italians are wasting an opportunity for change. She is undecided, but thinks she will vote for the Italian Popular Party, the successor to the Christian Democrats. Because there are no absentee ballots, she must return to her home in the southern village of Tricase in order to vote.
``We all know we have some problems, and we have the opportunity to solve them, but we behave as if we were living a century ago,'' Ms. Baglivo says. ``In a moment when we need ideas, we have no ideas in Italy.''
Her friend, Alessandra Costa, who will return to the neighboring village of Alessano, is also undecided. It's hard to find a good candidate, she says, there are no new faces.
``This is the biggest problem in our electoral district,'' she adds.
She will not vote for Berlusconi and finds his allies distasteful.
``I think the only thing he wants is power,'' Ms. Costa says. ``I don't believe in this man.''
Nor will she vote for the progressives, who in past years have had a lot of support but did not use it, she says. ``I think they're worse than the others. I also have a prejudice: I hate the Communists.''
Their friend Giorgia Lo Russo has different ideas.
Ms. Lo Russo, who has residency in Rome and does not have to travel south to vote, says she will vote progressive.
``I'm very afraid of the center because it's very uncertain in this moment, and there's too much division within its ranks,'' she says. ``I never would have voted for the conservative area in Italy and never for Berlusconi's movement.''
Under an electoral reform, 75 percent of the Parliament will be elected under the Anglo-Saxon system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and 25 percent under the old Italian proportional system, which assures that nearly all parties voted for will have representation in Parliament.
Some Italians, consequently, will split their vote. Paola Palminiello, for example, plans to vote for the progressives on the British-style ballot, but for the Communist Refoundation on the proportional ballot. For her, the first vote is a compromise: The left-wing parties do not represent the ideals she champions as a Communist voter, but it's her only choice if she wants to stop the right, she says.
She prefers the old proportional system because it gave her views a voice. Whether the Parliament she helps to elect can govern or not is not her problem, she says. ``I am afraid the right will win,'' notes Ms. Palminiello, who goes to Florence to vote. ``If they go to the government, I think the welfare state will be dismantled. This is the most important thing.''