Italy's two-day general election has begun amid voter disillusionment. It is one of the year's most closely watched votes as the new government will attempt to pull Italy out of a recession and solve the eurozone crisis.
Polling stations opened at 0700 GMT on Sunday, with a second day of voting from 0600-1400 on Monday. Exit polls are expected to come out shortly after voting ends and results are expected by early Tuesday. Some 47 million Italians are eligible to vote.
The favorite to win the Italian election is center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani (pictured above), who had a five point lead in surveys heading into Sunday's vote. Bersani says he will stick to the stringent austerity and economic reforms introduced by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, but analysts disagree about whether he can form a stable parliamentary majority to push through necessary legislation.
Trailing just behind Bersani is center-right candidate Silvio Berlusconi, himself a three-time prime minister who is also a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and having sex with an underage prostitute.
Campaign comes to a close
Friday was the final day of campaigning, which former comedian and anti-establishment candidate Beppe Grillo brought to a close with a huge rally that highlighted public anger at the traditional parties in Italian politics. Grillo has managed to draw tens of thousands to his election rallies, shaking up the race and raising the prospect that there may be no clear winner.
#video#Meanwhile, Berlusconi has seen his popularity rise sharply in the polls during a two-month media blitz with a promise to reimburse Italians on an unpopular property tax and blaming Italy's economic woes on a "hegemonic" Germany.
Berlusconi has said Monti was "subservient and always on his knees in front of [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and now she does not want to lose him."
"I would give her a run for her money," said Berlusconi, who was ousted from his latest stint as premier in November 2011 following a parliamentary revolt, multiple sex scandals and a wave of panic on financial markets.
The center left is expected to gain control of the lower house due to rules that guarantee a strong majority to whichever party wins the national vote. But the contest for the senate, which the government also needs to control in order to pass laws, will be a much closer fight.
A center-left government headed by Bersani and possibly backed by Monti, who is leading a centrist coalition, is considered to be the likely outcome by pollsters. But a coalition between the two could be complicated because of differences between the more free-market Monti and a smaller far-left party already partnered with Bersani.
Monti, who succeeded Berlusconi, implemented strict spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reforms which have had widespread international backing, and helped to restore Italy's credibility abroad after the scandals of the Berlusconi era.
Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone behind Germany and France. Behind Greece, it has the second highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the currency union, with national borrowings totaling roughly 120 percent of economic output. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has told the Stuttgart Zeitung that it was "in Italy's interests" to continue Monti's reforms.
dr, ipj/mr (AFP, Reuters)