Imagine this. You are a moderate leader of an opposition that is up against a powerful and populist magnate-politician who has promised vast tax cuts days before polling day. Your broad coalition has easily won every election - local, regional, European - over the past five years. You are ahead in every opinion poll before the election, except for that one which was "specially commissioned" by your opponent. The exit polls come out. Your coalition is well ahead and predicted to win easily. You fix a time of 18.30 for a victory speech. Then things start to go wrong.
Real results start to come in. The fiendishly complicated electoral system is misunderstood by everyone - commentators, pollsters (who make elementary mistakes all night) and political scientists. You cancel the 18.30 meeting and fix another for 19.30; then you cancel that one. People start to talk about Florida and Bush. It becomes clear that you might actually lose the election. You start to become desperate. You realise one or two seats will make all the difference. Moreover, Italians abroad (who have never voted before in a general election, and might not ever have been to Italy at all) will decide who governs the country. People start to think about the life senators - aged politicians appointed by the Italian president - are they left-wing? Are they right-wing? Are they still alive? Who are they, exactly? Nobody knows. Hundreds of journalists talk and talk, but very few have actually studied the situation or the possible scenarios. Even fewer understand Italy's constitution.
More than 36 million votes have been cast for the lower house, and your fate will be decided by the final few "sections" to come in. People are obsessively reloading the pages on the interior ministry's website. The sections refuse to come through. The politicians are tense. There is talk of ballot stuffing, of irregularities, of Belarus and Ukraine. Finally, you decide to make a speech - six hours after the scheduled victory address.
The speech is not one of victory. You thank your supporters and complain about the "late" results. Then you slip off, to watch internet pages reloading and reloading. Both sides claim to have won, but neither has. The emigrant votes are still to be counted - and the counting is painfully slow. A representative of the interior ministry tells the nation that the results won't come until "tomorrow". "When tomorrow?" a famous TV presenter asks, irritably. "I have no idea," comes the tired reply.
The crowd in Rome - who gathered soon after the exit polls to cheer your expected victory - stand around staring at the TV screens, as the distance between the two coalitions decreases with every result that comes in. The tension mounts and mounts. Politicians shout at each other as the schedules are cleared. They start to speak about "grand coalitions" and temporary solutions. Newspaper editors go to bed without being able to name a winner. Results creep in. At home, in front of their TV sets, friends argue as the wine and grappa flows. "Italy is a shitty country," someone says. "I'm leaving."
"They've stuffed the ballot boxes."
"But we've won, I think."
The final votes seem to take years to come through. Then they do. You have won after all - by a miserable 20,000 votes - and Italy is divided in two. How will you govern such a country?
Finally, however, in front of loyal and exhausted supporters, you get to make your "victory speech", more than seven hours after it was originally scheduled. Meanwhile, the richest man in Italy bides his time in his Rome palazzo. He came close to one of the most miraculous political victories in contemporary history, and those who wrote him off as finished are having to eat their words. Anzi, as they say in Italy . . . "On the contrary."
He is still very much around, and he ran a campaign which overturned an impossible situation. The caimano - the cayman - as he is known, is still biting, and half of Italy voted for him, despite five years of zero economic growth and laws to benefit himself. Whatever happens in the immediate future, the signs that this sends out to Europe, and to the world, are not encouraging .