Italians vote in key parliamentary elections

Millions turn out to cast ballot in closely watched race, amid disillusion with politicians and fears over economy.

    Italians have begun voting in crucial general elections as the country, one of Europe's biggest economies, battles recession and high unemployment.

    Polling booths opened at 8am (07:00 GMT) and will close at 10pm on Sunday and open again between 7am and 3pm on Monday.

    Four candidates are taking part in the first general election since former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of those standing, resigned in November last year after becoming embroiled in a series of scandals and escalating the country's debt crisis.

    Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, a former European commissioner, will also compete with the popular wildcard candidate Beppe Grillo, a comedian-turned-politican who leads the protest Five Star Movement party and Pier Luigi Bersani, the centre-left leader of the Democratic Party who led the last opinion polls.

    Given the popularity of Grillo’s anti-establishment movement, which saw hundreds of thousands attend his rallies, and the possibility of a coalition government between Bersani and Monti, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Naples, said an incapable leadership could emerge.

    Hull said: "In the end this country that needs stable strong government very badly may indeed end up with a weak, fragmented coalition that, yet again, doesn’t stand the test of time."

    Financial markets will watch the vote closely, with sky high public debt in Italy, the eurozone's third largest economy, second only to Greece.

    On Thursday, uncertainty surrounding the result helped push the euro to a six-week low against the dollar.

    The country has seen huge protest against the painful austerity measures imposed by Monti's government and there's a deep anger over corruption scandals.

    "I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old builder in Milan, said.

    Ida, a 48-year-old computer company employee in Rome, said: "This is a chance to change Italy."

    Protest against Berlusconi

    There was a commotion as Berlusconi came to vote in Milan when three topless feminists hurled themselves towards him with "Basta Berlusconi" ("Enough With Berlusconi") scrawled on their backs.

    Campaigning ended on Friday with candidates banned from publicly rallying for support in the 24 hours before the polls open. Opinion polls are also not allowed to be published during the fortnight preceding the vote.

    Berlusconi's campaign included promising to reimburse Italians an unpopular property tax. He has also won votes by blaming a "hegemonic" Germany for Italy's woes.

    The former prime minister said Monti was "subservient and always on his knees in front of Mrs [Angela] Merkel [the German chancellor] and now she does not want to lose him".

    "I would give her a run for her money," he said.

    Bersani however, has promised to stick to Monti's budget discipline but said he would do more for growth and jobs as Italy endured its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hit record highs.

    General disenchantment

    Exit polls are expected immediately after voting closes and preliminary official results will begin trickling through later on Monday and perhaps into Tuesday.

    Officials have called on Italians to vote amid fears that general disenchantment with politicians could mean a much lower turnout than usual.

    Forty-seven million Italians are eligible to vote.

    Complex electoral laws mean the rules are different for the composition of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, and the Senate, the upper house.

    Barbara Serra, reporting from Rome, said that there’s a real fear that the result might be a hung parliament.

    "None of the candidates will be able to get a majority or be able to form coalitions, that are strong enough to really give Italy a government which has strong mandate and direction," she said.

    "And that would be the worst case scenario both for Italy and the eurozone."


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