Elections hit by ballot slip dispute
Italian opposition chief Silvio Berlusconi, who is bidding for a third return to power, renewed demands on Monday that the ballot slips for Italy's upcoming elections be reprinted.
In the second row to hit the April 13-14 election process in less than a week, Berlusconi said printing new ballot papers with a different lay-out was the only way to avoid voter confusion.
The slips have come under fire from both Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) of ex-Rome mayor Walter Veltroni because their logos are shown attached to those of their allies.
The two blocs fear their voters will fall into the trap of putting a cross in the middle of the attached symbols, which would result in them being declared void.
The current electoral law - passed by Berlusconi himself towards the end of his 2001-2006 government - calls for voters to carefully put a cross over the logo of the party of their choice within any alliances.
The other parties vying in the elections do not have the same problem because they are running singly.
Berlusconi has suggested that the ballot papers be reprinted with all party logos depicted vertically instead of horizontally and with a sufficient gap between the connected logos of the two alliances.
''It's absurd that in a civilised country there should be such obstacles to a citizen's free expression of his vote,'' the 71-year-old centre-right leader said on Monday.
His ally, devolutionist Northern League leader Umberto Bossi, went further on Sunday, declaring that ''we might have to take up our rifles against these truly disgusting ballot slips which prevent people from expressing their vote clearly and simply''.
Bossi's incendiary language caused a fresh flap and was firmly condemned by the centre left.
The ballot wrangle came less than a week after a court ruling readmitting a tiny centrist party to the race threatened to force a postponement of the elections, sending the political world into a spin.
Giuseppe Pizza's Christian Democrat party (DC) was initially banned from standing because its logo was similar to that of a larger centrist rival, the UDC.
Interior Minister Giuliano Amato sought to calm the fresh row on Monday, saying that the elections would go ahead as planned with the current ballot slips.
In a letter published by the daily La Repubblica, Amato stressed that Italian troops and diplomats serving abroad had already voted.
''Changing the ballot papers now would invalidate the electoral process because not all voters would have used the same slips,'' the minister said.
He also argued that listing the logos vertically would give the two coalitions an advantage over their rivals by making them stand out on the paper.
One of the most vocal critics of the ballot slip graphics, the Italy of Values party headed by Veltroni ally Antonio Di Pietro, said it had resigned itself to the existing format.
Di Pietro, who had joined Berlusconi in calling for a reprint, conceded on Monday that it was now too late.
''The elections cannot be put off. At this point, the only thing to do is to make sure that voters are clearly informed about where to put their cross,'' said the former anti-graft prosecutor.
Meanwhile, smaller parties protested against the line taken by the two main coalitions.
''They want a ballot slip designed in the interests of Berlusconi and Veltroni,'' said UDC leader Pierferdinando Casini, a former Berlusconi ally who is running for premier.
Another candidate for premier, veteran leftist Fausto Bertinotti, said that ''all logos (on the ballot slip) must share the same level of visibility. The request for a reprint is a violation of the Constitution and would be an outrage to all other parties''.
Berlusconi's PDL is several points ahead of Veltroni's PD in the opinion polls.
But while the billionaire media magnate appears to be heading for a victory in the House, the result for the Senate, which is elected under a different system, could be much closer, leading to talk of a post-election 'grand coalition'.