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Italian polls open in … Antarctica and Russia

April 1, 2008

By Guy Dinmore in Rome and James Fontanella in London

Published: April 1 2008

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It is not easy running a campaign from Vladivostok to Dublin, yet the results of Italy’s parliamentary elections could hang on a few votes in far-flung places.

“I get the shivers thinking about it,” said Antonella Rebuzzi, who runs a chain of Italian restaurants in Moscow and is seeking re-election as senator for the centre-right People of Freedom party headed by Silvio Berlusconi, opposition leader and former prime minister.

Italy votes on April 13-14, but 3.6m registered Italians abroad have already started voting by post in the four constituencies created during the last elections in 2006: Europe (including Russia and Turkey); South America; North and Central America; Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica.

Italians joke about having a senator for Antarctica but it became a serious matter last year when the incumbent Nino Randazzo, based in Australia, revealed that Mr Berlusconi had offered him a future job as deputy foreign minister if he would vote against Romano Prodi’s centre-left government. Mr Randazzo refused.

Mr Prodi’s slim majority in the Senate was partly due to the four out of six seats his alliance won abroad. The lower house has 12 seats for Italians overseas.

Ms Rebuzzi is focusing her campaign on France, Switzerland and Germany. In her two years in the “golden prison” of the Senate, she proposed a law that would trademark Italian restaurants outside the country, like Parmiggiano cheese.

“I am furious because it seems that the French will get there before us,” she said of the trademark idea. She believes Italy would benefit from the strong relations between Mr Berlusconi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

She and other centre-right candidates have raised allegations of possible fraud, saying voting abroad is not tightly regulated. Il Giornale, the daily mouthpiece of Mr Berlusconi, has alleged there is a black market in vote-buying and 120,000 excess ballot papers were printed in South America.

Guglielmo Picchi, a centre-right candidate seeking re-election in London, says electoral fraud is his biggest concern.

Danilo Benevelli, centre-right candidate and resident in Switzerland and South Africa, is concentrating on the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, where Italians are drawn by Switzerland’s lower tax breaks. One of his main campaign assets is his wife, 35-year-old Samuela Baratella, a popular weather presenter on television.

Campaigning in the UK for the centre-left Democratic party is Simona Milio, a political science lecturer at the London School of Economics, who relies on her blog. “I simply didn’t have enough money to send everybody a leaflet,” she said.

She also discovered that the older generation barely spoke Italian. “That meant that I had to rewrite a lot of the leaflets in English for them to understand my manifesto.”

Democratic party candidates in the US and Canada hope to benefit from the buzz surrounding the US primaries, in particular the associations drawn by their leader, Walter Veltroni, with Barack Obama. “We hope the magic will rub off,” says Emilia Vitare, a genetics researcher in New York whose staff are volunteers in both the Italian and US campaigns.

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