ROME — Beware the votes of March. Not since Caesar got bushwhacked on his way to the Forum can there have been this much venom in a Roman spring.
In scope and snarl, the name-calling and mudslinging are positively imperial. Et tu, Politico ! There are dirty tricks enough to make a gladiator blush.
The free-for-all campaign prefaces national elections beginning this weekend that are Italy's most traumatic in four decades. They are a break with a discredited and corrupt "old pals" system, and they chart a new, if uncertain, political future.
Ambitious wanna-bes of every political stripe have transformed this opportunity into an unprecedented descent into barbarism, sniffed Indro Montanelli, the conservative, octogenarian dean of Italian journalism, in his new newspaper La Voce.
"I urge everyone at this very delicate moment in our national life to avoid acts which may disrupt the electoral campaign," said Prime Minister Carlo Ciampi, a technocrat who is not a politician, is not running and was roundly ignored as competing parties climaxed their campaigns Friday night with fresh torrents of invective.
Voting Sunday and Monday is for a new 630-seat Chamber of Deputies and a 315-seat Senate, with a coalition of winning parties to form Italy's 53rd postwar government.
This election is different from all others since World War II, because three-quarters of Parliament will be elected not proportionately but directly, in U.S.-style, winner-take-all showdowns.
And because Italians are so disgusted with political parties that have ruled since the war--all of them tarred by the nation's worst corruption scandal--they are receptive to new faces.
Chief among those is Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire media baron who has proved in a rookie grab for power that he may be as successful politically as he is commercially--and that he is as thin-skinned as he is rich.
Berlusconi, who is loudly intolerant of criticism, heads a triumvirate of right-wing parties, including the formerly Fascist National Alliance and the secessionist Northern League. They are bedmates who do not speak.
Many voters were still undecided when pollsters unplugged their computers two weeks ago, but on balance, the right was narrowly ahead of an eight-party leftist alliance dominated by the former Communist Party, now called the Party of the Democratic Left and relaunched as social democratic under Achille Occhetto.
Centrists around the scandal-tarnished and renamed Christian Democrats, cornerstones of all 52 postwar governments, were a poor third when the polls stopped in obedience to a new law accompanying electoral reform. Since then, the campaign has generated considerably more heat than light, with issues overwhelmed by accusations.
Berlusconi's skyrocket political debut at the head of a 4-month-old movement called Forza Italia (Go Italy) has attracted concentrated fire from both the wounded centrists and the leftists who had confidently expected to become their successors in power.
Insults fly. Running as a virulent anti-Communist, Berlusconi accuses Occhetto of leading "Stalinist-Leninists . . . who have not cut their ties with their bloody past . . . including Stalin's purges, the Spanish Fascist extermination of anarchists, and the genocide of (Cambodian) Pol Pot."
Occhetto, a self-proclaimed fan of NATO, conservative economics and President Clinton, calls Berlusconi "arrogant and dangerous."
Times have changed, the Cold War is over, Occhetto taunted Berlusconi in a speech. "This is not 1948. People know us. We live on the same floor as they do. We administer big cities. Nobody believes you any longer."
Berlusconi complains that his companies have had 86 visits from the tax police in the last four months, compared to 10 in the previous 20 years.
In the frantic last week of campaigning, the centrist minister of interior, the former Communist head of Parliament's anti-Mafia commission and the leftist anti-Mafia mayor of Palermo have all hurled organized crime accusations Berlusconi's way.
"A chain of lies," he charged.
The race for Parliament in the tourist-beloved heart of Rome typifies the three-way division of Italy's landmark election that begins weekend.
On the left: Luigi Spaventa, 60, affable intellectual, budget minister in the technocrat government of Prime Minister Carlo Ciampi. Represents Democratic Alliance, a new small movement within eight-party Progressive group lead by former Communists.
In the center: Alberto Michelini, 52, journalist, former TV news anchor. A conservative, represents new reformist party Pact for Italy. Served in Parliament as Christian Democrat before bolting in wake of corruption scandal.
On the right: Silvio Berlusconi, 57, one of Italy's richest men and founder of conservative Forza Italia movement. Owns three national TV stations, magazines and a newspaper. Favored to win seat, but Spaventi could surprise.