Frustrated Italians vote in unpredictable poll seen as crucial for eurozone
By Catherine Hornby ,ReutersROME -- Italians voted on Sunday in one of the most closely watched and unpredictable elections in years, with pent-up fury over a discredited elite adding to concern it may not produce a government strong enough to lead Italy out of an economic slump.
February 25, 2013, 12:05 am TWN
The election, which concludes on Monday afternoon, is being followed closely by investors; their memories are still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that saw Mario Monti, an economics professor and former bureaucrat, summoned to serve as prime minister in place of Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago.
A weak Italian government could, many fear, prompt a new dip in confidence in the European Union's single currency.
Opinion polls give the center-left a narrow lead but the result has been thrown completely open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against the painful austerity measures imposed by Monti's government and deep anger over a never-ending series of corruption scandals. Berlusconi's center-right has also revived.
The 64-year-old Grillo, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians hit by record unemployment, has been one of the biggest features of the last stage of the campaign, packing rallies in town squares up and down Italy.
Italians started voting at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT). Polling booths will remain open until 10 p.m. on Sunday and open again between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.
Snow in northern regions is expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million people eligible to vote in Italy to head out to polling stations, though the Interior Ministry has said it is fully prepared for bad weather.
Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in a Milan school on Sunday morning and center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader opinion polls suggest will have to form a new government, voted in his home town of Piacenza.
A small group of women's rights demonstrators greeted former Prime Minister Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They bared their breasts in protest at the conservative leader, who is on trial at present for having sex with an underage prostitute.
Whichever government emerges from the election will have to tackle reforms needed to address problems that have given Italy one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world for the past two decades.
But the widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians, has left deep scars.