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Campaigns wind down before Italian polls open

Candidates have wrapped up their final day of campaigning in Italy, two days before a national election deemed crucial to the eurozone. The result will determine Italy's commitment to austerity measures.

Italy's political opponents held their final rallies on Friday in the run up to the national election on Sunday and Monday.

Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani held his last electoral meeting in Rome, whilst his rival, Silvio Berlusconi, headed to a rally in Naples. The left-leaning coalition leader Bersani, who supports pro-market views, is believed to be just a few points ahead of the Berlusconi's bloc of center-right parties.

"I am very, very confident of victory although we should not underestimate the right," Bersani said in one of his last television interviews before the election.

Outgoing technocrat premier Mario Monti took office in November 2011, at the height of Italy's financial crisis when Berlusconi resigned. He promised to step down after the budget was passed in 2012. He delivered on that promise a few months ago, prompting this weekend's election. Monti's short tenure helped restore Italy's international reputation and reduce the nation's borrowing costs.

In December 2012, Monti announced that he would run in the general election. He leads a centrist coalition that is struggling in the polls, but is considered a potential coalition candidate for Bersani. Earlier in the campaign Berlusconi unsuccessfully courted Monti, seeking to secure him as the leader of the bloc of conservative and right-wing parties.

Unpredictable results

Analysts are unable to predict the result of the upcoming election, saying it's too close to call. Several polls have indicated that Bersani may only get the votes he needs to secure a stable majority in the lower house of parliament whilst failing to take control of the Senate. Such a result would give outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti a key role in a coalition.

An average of recent polls give Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Beppe Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent of the vote.

Grillo, a former comedian whose idealism draws crowds, is the wild card. He advocates that Italy leave the eurozone altogether.

Whether Bersani can win and form a stable coalition with a majority in both houses of parliament is the main question. Failure to do so could make it more difficult for Bersani to pursue the necessary economic reforms Italy needs to pull itself out of recession. Bersani has pledged to maintain Monti's road to economic reform.

Experts say the result will revolve around the much more complex Senate race, where winners' bonuses are awarded on a regional basis. The centre-left and centre-right are close to a draw in several battleground regions.

After being snubbed by Monti, Berlusconi's campaign instead targeted the outgoing premier, criticizing the technocrat's unpopular housing tax - to the point of offering to give it back to voters if elected.

International concerns

Whatever the final result, investors are keen for Italy not to return to its free-wheeling public expenditures.

"We believe that a risk exists that after the February 24-25 elections there may be a loss of momentum on important reforms to improve Italian growth prospects," Standard & Poor's ratings agency said in a report this week.

Italians vote over two days on Sunday and Monday, with provisional results expected Monday evening.

tm/msh (AFP, Reuters)