WHAT if Italy held an election and nobody won? As Italians prepare to go to the polls on Sunday, that's not such a remote possibility.
"It's very difficult to imagine a clear victory coming out of this election," says Massimo Teodori, a commentator and former parliamentary deputy.
In the last days before the election here, it is illegal to report the results of opinion polls. Before the ban was imposed, data showed economics professor Romano Prodi's center-left coalition and ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right virtually tied. But rumors are rife that Mr. Prodi's coalition has taken a lead - though this cannot be confirmed.
Mr. Berlusconi's behavior tends to suggest that he's running scared, however. After a rather tranquil campaign, he suddenly wondered out loud the other day if there would ever be elections again in Italy if the center-left won.
The question evoked memories of his 1994 electoral campaign, which he won by painting his opponents as Communists who were bent on depriving Italy of freedom and economic well-being.
But this time, despite Berlusconi's "provocation" - as his ally, far-right leader Gianfranco Fini, called it - both of Italy's electoral coalitions are appealing to centrist voters.
"Perhaps the country has never been so united as it is today," says commentator and author Giorgio Bocca, noting that the virulent hatred between the Communists and Fascists of his youth is now gone.
Yet a genuine victory by either side seems ruled out for at least two reasons. First, neither coalition appears to have enough votes to overwhelm the opposition in Parliament. Second, two parties that are not part of either coalition, the Communist Refoundation and the Northern League, are capable of getting nearly 10 percent each of the national vote but are not likely to side with either Prodi or Berlusconi.
"I have the impression that many people on the right are truly nauseated by Berlusconi and don't have the courage to vote for Fini," says Mr. Bocca, who lives in Milan. So they'll vote for the League, he suggests. The Northern League wants regions to have more say over what happens to their tax liras.
Meanwhile, the Communist Refoundation is clearly no friend of Berlusconi, whose business empire includes three TV networks that compete with the three state-owned networks. The Refoundation says it would support the formation of a center-left government led by Prodi. But once the government is created, the Communists promise to return to their historic role as an opposition party.
Most likely, a government will be formed, and debate on reforming Italy's system of government will pick up where it left off before elections were called.
At the beginning of the year, attempts to form a reformist government collapsed when not all parties accepted a proposal by the right to introduce a strong presidential system along French lines. Mr. Teodori suggests the right might now get its way by introducing a two-stage election system instead of a single trip to the polls. Another likely reform would be the introduction of some form of federalism, which just about every party now espouses.