Austerity-hit Italy votes with Europe on tenterhooks
ROME - Agence France-Presse
A nuns casts her ballot in a polling station in downtown Rome, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Italy votes in a watershed parliamentary election Sunday and Monday that could shape the future of one of Europe's biggest economies. AP Photo/Andrew MedichiniItalians fed up with austerity went to the polls on Sunday in elections where the centre-left is the favourite, as Europe held its breath for signs of fresh instability in the eurozone's third economy.
Millions turned out to vote for the first time since billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was ousted in 2011 during a wave of financial market panic and replaced by former Eurocrat Mario Monti.
The most likely winner is the Democratic Party and its leader Pier Luigi Bersani, but analysts say he may fall short of a majority and need to weave together a coalition that could prove unsteady.
Bersani has promised to stick to Monti's budget discipline but says he will do more for growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hits record highs.
"I am voting for the Democratic Party. I don't want us to end up like Greece," said Alessandro, a 63-year-old manager, as he cast his ballot in Milan.
But the scandal-tainted Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister who is also a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and having sex with an underage prostitute, could come a close second.
"There's a lot of confusion in these elections. I'm voting Berlusconi. I know he has his defects but he's the best," said Maria Teresa Gottardi, 65.
But many Italians disagree, like voter Sara Di Gregori, a 30-year-old lawyer in Rome, who warned: "If Berlusconi returns, it would be a disaster." In third place, according to the polls, could be a new protest party led by comedian turned activist Beppe Grillo who has channelled growing social discontent and anger at traditional politicians.
The "Grillini" -- as Grillo's followers are known -- could be a disruptive force in parliament.
"Italy votes in uncertainty," read a headline in La Stampa daily, where editor Mario Calabresi wrote: "The truth is no-one has a magic wand." "New lawmakers will need to be realistic," he said.
In Italy's top-selling daily, Corriere della Sera, Barbara Stefanelli hailed the fact that the number of women in parliament might double this election.
"This is a major step forward to pass over the ditch that still keeps Italy on the wrong side of any acceptable sign of modernity," she wrote.
Polling stations close at 2100 GMT on Sunday and open again for a second day of voting at 0600 GMT on Monday, closing at 1400 GMT.
Exit polls are expected immediately after the close and preliminary official results will begin trickling through later on Monday.
Officials have called on Italians to vote amid fears that general disenchantment with politics could mean a much lower turnout than usual.
Forty-seven million Italians are eligible to vote.
Caterina, a 19-year-old in Milan said she was glad to be voting after 18 months of a technocratic, unelected government that was installed by president parliament after the fall of Berlusconi.
"Voting is very important. The Democratic Party are the only ones who can solve our problems," she said.
Opinion polls however indicate the result may not give Bersani alone a strong enough majority to rule and he may have to ally with Monti, which could bring the economics professor back into government.
The vote will hinge on the vote in key regions like wealthy Lombardy in the north and stricken Sicily in the south, which are hugely influential in the Senate where seats are divided up by region.
A coalition between Monti and Bersani would not be simple because of differences between the free-marketeer Monti and a small far-left party that is already in coalition with Bersani.
The elections are being seen as the most important since 1994 when Berlusconi won his first victory after a series of massive corruption scandals wiped out Italy's entire post-war political system.
"Italians are called on to make a choice that is in many ways historic," political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte said.
"In 1994, the consequences were only about us. That is not the case any more, now they are about Europe and its future," he said.
Berlusconi will still be a powerful force.
He has risen sharply in the polls with a promise to reimburse an unpopular property tax and will likely win votes with his slogans against a "hegemonic" Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I would give her a run for her money," he said in an interview reported by Italian media on Saturday. Monti has been "always on his knees in front of Mrs Merkel," he said. He added that if elected he would fight against Europe's "lords of austerity".
Berlusconi was forced out in November 2011 following a parliamentary revolt, a myriad of sex scandals and a wave of panic on financial markets.
The sober Monti, a former economics professor, has brought the markets to heel and restored Italy's image as a key player in the eurozone debate.
Italy is the euro area's third largest economy after Germany and France and a major exporter.
While its debt is sky-high at around 120.1 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) -- second only to Greece's -- its public deficit is under control.
An average of the last polls made public gave Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent.