Italy votes in general election
Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he appears as a guest on the RAI television show Porta a Porta (Door to Door) in Rome last night. Photograph: Reuters
Italians are voting 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.
The election, which concludes tomorrow 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 centre-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 Mr Monti's government and deep anger over a never-ending series of corruption scandals. Berlusconi's centre-right has also revived.
"I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old builder in Milan, who voted for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic and blogger Beppe Grillo.
The 64-year-old Mr 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.
"He's the only real new element in a political landscape where we've been seeing the same faces for too long," said Vincenzo Cannizzaro (48) in the Sicilian capital Palermo.
Italians started voting today and polling booths will open until 2pm tomorrow. 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 tomorrow 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.
Mr Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in a Milan school today morning and centre-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.
"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality. We're just not Europeans," said Luciana Li Mandri, a 37-year-old public servant in Palermo.