Italians were delivering their verdict Monday in the final hours of a two-day general election that could put an end to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's political career and hand power to his rival, Romano Prodi.
Analysts said Prodi and Berlusconi were neck-and-neck
Prodi, who unseated Berlusconi in the 1996 election, told AFP he was "confident, very confident," of maintaining his hex on the media magnate and pollsters said the expected high turnout could favor his center-left Union bloc.
The rival leaders were a study in contrasting moods on Monday, as voting entered its second and final day.
Prodi, a 66-year-old former professor, coolly sipped coffee at a bar near Rome's tourist-thronged Trevi Fountain after returning to the capital by train from his home city of Bologna in northern Italy earlier Monday.
Meanwhile, the normally voluble Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, remained at his mansion in Arcore, outside Milan.
Berlusconi's mother accompanied him to the polls in Milan on Sunday
Much attention will focus on the outcome of the poll in Berlusconi's home city. The center-right's share of the vote has dwindled steadily in the northern business capital, and only 12,000 votes separated left and right in local elections in 2005.
Exit polls in afternoon
"It's neck-and-neck," said Milan-based political analyst John Foot. "Berlusconi has always been intimately linked with Milan. He constructed it and has been constructed by it," Foot told AFP. "Lose Milan and he loses Italy."
Pollsters forecast a high turnout by the close of voting at 3:00 pm Monday, after more than two-thirds of the electorate, 66.5 percent, cast their ballots on Sunday. Analysts say a high turnout could favor Prodi's center-left Union bloc, a multihued group including Communists as well as Catholics and liberals, which held a narrow opinion poll lead coming into the elections.
Prodi voted at home in Bologna on Sunday
Exit polls were expected to deliver an unofficial verdict in the afternoon, with first official results expected by evening.
If the margin of victory for either side is narrow, both parties fear a split parliament with power divided between the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, leading to the nightmare scenario of legislative paralysis. To win a mandate to govern, a coalition must win control of both houses.
Analysts said the center-left was boosted by a large turnout, with two out of three Italians voting by the close of polling on Sunday night.
"There are those who support the idea that a bigger turnout would give the center-left an advantage, given that this bloc certainly comprises more militant voters," said pollster Renato Mannheimer in the daily Corriere della Sera. "That seems to be confirmed by the fact that in the traditionally left regions the turnout has been higher than in the last election," he said.
Campaigning was fierce
But other analysts say a high turnout would instead favor the center-right in traditionally conservative Italy and point to a low turnout in the communist-controlled region of Puglia.
Italian media reported that the Union's headquarters have been inundated with requests for accreditations for journalists, while the right-wing National Alliance led by Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini has refused any such requests.
Umberto Bossi, leader of the anti-immigration Northern League and a staunch ally of Berlusconi, said that if the center-left won the election "I'm taking off to Switzerland."