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Last updated: February 24, 2013 9:58 pm
Italians began voting on Sunday in parliamentary elections in a return to direct democracy after 15 months of austerity under Mario Monti’s appointed technocratic government, with many anticipating a close outcome that could lead to no clear winner.
Polling booths will close at 3pm on Monday after two days of voting, with results expected on Monday night or early Tuesday. Official figures at noon on Sunday showed that the turnout was slightly less than at the same point in 2008, when the turnout reached a final 80.5 per cent of the electorate.
The extent of the protest vote could be crucial in determining the result of an election that has been too close to call.
Latest opinion polls leaked to the media after a pre-election blackout came into force on February 8 showed the centre-left coalition led by the Democratic party narrowly ahead of a centre-right alliance headed by Silvio Berlusconi, the former three-time prime minister. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement was making strong gains while Mr Monti’s centrist alliance remained a distant fourth.
Such an outcome would give the centre-left a majority in the lower house, where a winning premium is given to the largest coalition. But in the Senate, where the premium is awarded on a regional basis, closely fought contests in four major regions will determine whether the centre-left can reach a governing majority without having to seek a ruling coalition with Mr Monti.
Heading to the polling stations, many Italians said they were making their most difficult choice ever and unsure whether to remain faithful to the mainstream parties or whether to be swayed by the anger that many feel at the establishment following a year of corruption scandals.
Italians are also voting for new regional governments in the big regions of Lombardy and Lazio where both centre-right administrations collapsed last year amid investigations into alleged corruption.
Mr Berlusconi, who drove his campaign with promises of tax cuts, a rebate and an amnesty, was followed by controversy to the last moment. Breaking a ban on electoral silence on Saturday, Mr Berlusconi railed again at the magistrates that have pursued him in the courts by describing them as “worse than the Mafia”.
And when he voted on Sunday in Milan, Mr Berlusconi was met with a protest by three topless women with “Basta (enough) Berlusconi” painted on their bodies. Police wrestled them to the ground with snow coming down and dragged the women away. Some reports said the trio were from the Ukrainian Femen protest movement.
The 76-year-old billionaire media mogul, who is fighting a court conviction for tax fraud, is also currently on trial charged with paying for sex with an underage prostitute. He denies both the charges.
Mr Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister in November 2011, under pressure from fellow European heads of government and panicking financial markets, while his party’s slim majority in parliament was in danger of evaporating. Mr Monti, who initially said he would not run for office, changed his mind in December after Mr Berlusconi withdrew his party’s support for his appointed technocrat successor.
Guaranteed a seat in parliament having been appointed a life senator in November 2011, Mr Monti says he entered politics to guarantee continuation of his economic reforms. But after a year of deep recession, tax increases and spending cuts, Italians seem little inclined to give their vote to the former EU commissioner whose old guard electoral allies are regarded as part of the political mainstream a disgruntled electorate wants to leave behind.
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