Leading candidates
 
Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon and two-time former prime minister, and Walter Veltroni, a former mayor of Rome, are the leading candidates for the prime minister's job.
 
Both have promised to reverse the economic downturn and said that Italy needs more police to tackle crime.

The early election was called after the centre-left government  of Romano Prodi collapsed in January, having completed 20 months in power.
 
Pessimism towards the political process is a sentiment widely felt in the country.
 
Complex law
 
But the ability to carry out change the system may depend on a complex election law developed by Berlusconi that will make it hard to win a clear majority in the upper house of parliament.

The voting system put in place by Berlusconi's last government, before he narrowly lost the 2006 election to Prodi, make is it difficult to win a strong majority in the senate, the upper house of parliament.

Both Berlusconi and his rival have pledged
to reverse the economic downturn [AFP]
The election winner will probably have to form a coalition government with one of several small parties, which have largely been kept at arms length by the main candidates during campaigning.
   
The possibility of a split parliament led Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), to say that he could take up the premiership to become a referee between the two large blocs.
   
Berlusconi has urged supporters of smaller groups - there are a  total of 32 candidates for prime minister - to cast a "useful vote" for his People of Freedom (PDL).

Economic stagnation

More than half of Italians surveyed two weeks ago - 51.4  per cent - an increase from 36 per cent a year ago - felt worse off economically.
 
Berlusconi and Veltroni have both promised modest tax cuts aimed at spurring consumption.
 
Italy's economy grew only 1.5 per cent last year, and the outlook for  2008 is predicted to be bleak.
  
A general malaise was also reflected in the last opinion surveys that classed one-third of Italy's 47 million voters as undecided.

Berlusconi has led opinion polls by between six and nine percentage points.