A woman casts her vote in a polling station in Rome.
Italians are voting in one of the most unpredictable
elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a
discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge
strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.
"I am pessimistic. Nothing will change," said Luciana Li
Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital
Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues on
"The usual thieves will be in government."
Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters
said they thought the new administration would not last long,
just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest
slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public
The election is being closely watched by investors whose
memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out
scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15
months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario
"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 building tradesman in
Underlining his disilluion with the established parties, he
voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
An iconclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Grillo has screamed
himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians
that have channelled the anger of Italians, especially a
frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.
"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 Palermo.
Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi
Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by
the prospect of a huge protest vote against Monti's painful
austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.
A weak government could usher in new instability in the euro
zone's third largest economy and cause another crisis of
confidence in the European Union's single currency.
Television tycoon Berlusconi, showing off unrivalled media
skills and displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76,
has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by
halving the gap between his centre-right and Bersani.
"I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that
we will again have the problem of ungovernability" said
Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her
family name. "I fear the new government won't last long."
Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: "I
am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it's
the only way to show how sick to the back teeth we are with
the old parties."
Voting continues until 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) and resumes on
Monday at 7 a.m. Exit polls will be published shortly after
polls close at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Monday. Full official
results are expected by early Tuesday.
Snow in the north was expected to last into Monday and could
discourage some of the 47 million eligible voters.
Authorities said they were prepared for the weather and in
the central city of Bologna roads were cleared of snow before
Several bare-breasted women protested against Berlusconi when
he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.
The four-time premier, known for off-colour jokes and a
constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with
an underage prostitute during "bunga bunga" parties at his
Most experts expect a coalition between Bersani and Monti to
form the next administration, but whatever government emerges
will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalise
one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.
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 struggling to make ends meet, has left deep
"It's our fault, Italian citizens. It's our closed mentality.
We're just not Europeans," said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.
"We're all about getting favours when we study, getting a
protected job when we work," she said. "That's the way we are
and we can only be represented by people like that as well."
Even if Bersani wins as expected, Analysts are divided over
whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can
force through sweeping economic reforms.
His centre-left is expected to have firm control of the lower
house, thanks to rules that give a strong majority to
whichever party wins the most votes nationally.
But a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate which
is elected on a regional basis and which has equal law making
powers to the chamber.
Berlusconi has clawed back suppport by promising to repeal
Monti's hated new housing tax, the IMU, and to refund the
money. He relentlessly attacked what he called the
"Germano-centric" policies of the former European Union
Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, said on his way to vote in
Bologna that Bersani's Democratic Party was the only group
serious enough to repair the economy: "They're not perfect,"
he said. "But they've got the organisation and the union
backing that will help them push through structural reforms."
Despite Berlusconi's success, Grillo has tapped into the same
public frustration as the conservative tycoon and pollsters
say his 5-Star Movement of political novices could overtake
the centre-right to take second place in the vote.
Rivals have branded Grillo a threat to democracy - a vivid
image in a country ruled by fascists for two decades until
World War Two. Several voters who spoke to Reuters said
Grillo was not the answer because of his lack of concrete
policies and the inexperience of those who will sit in
parliament for 5-Star.
"Grillo is a populist and populism doesn't work in a
democracy," said retired notary Pasquale Lebanon, 76, as he
voted for Bersani's Democratic Party in Milan.
"I'm very worried. There seems to be no way out from a
political point of view, or for being able to govern," said
Calogero Giallanza, a 45-year-old musician in Rome as he also
voted for Bersani.
"There's bound to be a mess in the Senate because, as far as
I can see the 5-Star Movement is unstoppable."