Turnout was slightly down during the first day of voting in Italy's two-day general election. The vote will determine Italy's commitment to economic reforms and is considered crucial to the stability of the eurozone.
Some 50 million are entitled to cast ballots in Italy, but fewer voters than expected headed to the polls on Sunday.
The Ministry of the Interior reported lower voter turnout throughout the day, compared to the previous general elections in 2008. It said that by 1900 UTC the poll turnout was at 44 percent, down 2.5 percentage points from last time.
Weighing up the choices
The main question is whether austerity-weary voters in Italy will continue with a candidate who supports painful economic reforms or choose one who may push back or even introduce a referendum to exit the eurozone.
Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani had a slight edge in pre-election polls over rival Silvio Berlusconi and his bloc of center-right parties. Bersani is committed to maintaining the economic reforms set out by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, but the question remains whether he can win and form a stable coalition with a majority in both houses of parliament. If he succeeds in doing so, it would give outgoing premier Monti a role in a coalition with Bersani.
Close behind Bersani in the polls was Berlusconi, who has questioned the austerity measures. He particularly targeted Monti's unpopular housing tax, which he has said he would repeal if elected.
And signs are mounting of support for the wild-card candidate, comedian Beppe Grillo, and his anti-establishment movement.
Voting on Sunday remained calm, for the most part, but one incident targeted Berlusconi. When the candidate showed up to vote at a polling station in Milan, three woman bared their chests and shouted "Enough of Berlusconi." They were promptly detained by police.
Turnout may be key
The results of the election could be affected by turnout. Usually about 80 percent of Italy's eligible voters go to the polls, but experts fear many will stay away this time round. Their abstentions could hurt mainstream parties.
The snow and cold in northern Italy didn't help matters on Sunday. Italian voters are accustomed to voting in spring elections, not winter ones. Rain is forecast for much of the country on Monday.
Polls will reopen on Monday at 0600 UTC and close at 1400 UTC. Early results based on exit polls are expected shortly thereafter.
tm/kms (AP, dpa)