Conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's job was on the line Sunday, facing a stiff challenge from his centre-left rival Romano Prodi as voters went to the polls in Italy's first general election for five years.
Italians face a confusing array of symbols and candidates in Italy's disparate election ballot
Some 60,000 polling stations around the country opened at 8:00 am (0600 GMT), beginning two days of polling which will end Monday at 3:00 pm. First results are expected later that day.
With balloting spread over two days, voting early Sunday was not expected to be particularly brisk. Around 50 people voted in the first half hour of polling at the Lungatevere della Farnesina station in Rome, close to the Vatican.
"I voted for those who are defending our values: the family, education and security. These values are not only religious values but of society in general," said one nun who voted with around 30 others from her order after attending morning mass to celebrate Palm Sunday.
Berlusconi, 69, has repeatedly called on voters to defend Italy's "Christian identity" and family values against a perceived threat from Prodi's centre-left which includes Communists who want legal recognition of same-sex couples.
His centre-right bloc has come under fire in a vitriolic campaign which focused on Italy's dire economic performance, tax cuts and unemployment.
The campaign was marked by a clash of styles between the suave and voluble Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, and Prodi's more diffident, professorial approach.
Clear lines of division despite confusing ballot
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Berlusconi, in what analysts said was an attempt to focus voter attention on him during a media blitz, has memorably compared himself to Jesus Christ, Napoleon, and used a vulgar epithet to describe left-wing voters.
"I voted left to send Berlusconi packing," said Daniele Calente, a civil servant. "But I'm afraid his media bombardment might have made a difference, and all his lies."
"I've always voted left but this time it's more important than ever and I'm convinced Prodi can't lose," said Grazia, 55, who voted with her husband.
Paolo, 40, said he had plumped for the centre-left "because we have to get rid of Berlusconi."
Prodi takes slender lead into vote
Prodi can count on the anti-Berlusconi vote
Prodi, a 66-year-old former EU Commission president who began his career as a university professor, held a narrow lead in opinion polls before surveys were suspended under electoral law two weeks ago.
However, up to 25 percent of voters were undecided going into the polls.
Millions of Italians living abroad have been allowed to vote in a general election for the first time. The foreign ministry reported a 42 percent "turnout" in the expatriate vote after collating the mailed ballots.
Berlusconi, the colorful 69-year-old prime minister who became the first prime minister to take a government to its full term in Italy since World War II, is hoping for a much higher turnout in traditional polling.
"Vote! Vote! Vote!" trumpeted the banner headline of Il Giornale, the daily newspaper owned by Berlusconi's businessman brother Paolo.
Higher turnout likely to favor Berlusconi
Voting started slowly on Sunday
Analysts say a high turnout is likely to favor his centre-right House of Freedoms bloc, which includes his Forza Italia party, the National Alliance of Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, and the Northern League of Umberto Bossi.
Berlusconi has also made pre-electoral pacts with a slew of other parties, including a neo-Fascist group led by Alessandra Mussolini.
Prodi leads a more disparate centre-left grouping, which includes the largest individual opposition party, the Democrats of the Left of Piero Fassino, the moderate Margherita (Daisy) party of Francesco Rutelli, and Italy's two Communist parties.
Voters will choose 630 members in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and 315 in the Senate, under a proportional representation system which has recently been re-adopted after a law in December junked the old, mainly first-past-the-post, system.
Electors are being presented with a ballot paper indicating a blinding array of party symbols. They are casting their ballots not for individuals, but for parties. The more votes a party gets, the more members on its list win seats in the new parliament.