Low turnout as austerity-weary Italy holds key vote

Italy on Monday was winding up landmark elections watched warily by eurozone neighbours fearful that no clear winner will emerge, while a lacklustre turnout reflected widespread frustration among voters fed up with austerity cuts and a grinding recession.

Sunday, the first of a two-day vote, saw a sharp drop in turnout of seven percentage points compared with the last elections in 2008, standing at 55 percent going into Monday's polling.

"Italy turns its back on politics, deserts the ballot boxes, and this is how it registers its protest," wrote the left-wing daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

Leading daily Corriere della Sera said the low turnout reflected an "acute disorientation" in the electorate, fed up with biting austerity measures and facing a "crisis with no end in sight".

A new protest party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, who is calling for a referendum on the euro, is expected to make major inroads as Italians endure their longest recession in two decades.

Polling stations reopened at 0600 GMT and were to close at 1400 GMT, after which exit polls and early official results are expected later on Monday and into Tuesday.

Billionaire and three-time prime minister Berlusconi has waged a populist campaign, blaming Germany for Italy's economic woes and promising to refund an unpopular property tax to Italians -- out of his own pocket if needed.

The 76-year-old media tycoon, who was mobbed by three topless feminists in a protest as he arrived to cast his ballot on Sunday, has survived multiple scandals in his 20 years in politics and is a defendant in two ongoing trials -- one for tax fraud and the other for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power.

European capitals are watching closely for any signs of fresh political instability in the eurozone's third economy that could send shockwaves through the euro area, or a return to the bad old days of free-wheeling public finances.

Bersani has said he will abide by the budget discipline enforced by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, a former European commissioner roped in after Berlusconi's ouster in 2011 who has done much to reassure financial markets.

But the former communist turned liberal economic reformer Bersani will face pressure from trade unions and many ordinary Italians who have seen unemployment rise to record highs and the economy spiral downwards.

"We're living a tragi-comic moment, with lots of fantastical promises, and I don't think whoever wins will have a stable majority," said Luciano Pallagroni, 77, as he voted in Rome.

Student David, rushing to vote Monday morning, said: "After this aberrant campaign with idiot candidates, I hope that there will be a real change, with tangible results for Italy."

The down-to-earth Bersani, 61, the son of a car mechanic from northern Italy, has struggled to overcome his image as a party apparatchik and has surrounded himself with a youthful team with many women in the ranks.

The wild card will be the tousle-haired Grillo, who has spoken to packed squares across Italy during the campaign, drawing the crowds with his mixture of invective against traditional politicians and grassroots idealism.

"They are attacking us, they're terrorised, because we're doing something exceptional. We are actually going to win the election!" he said earlier during a trip to Lombardy, the biggest region and a Berlusconi stronghold, making it a key election battleground.

Critics have said his Five Star Movement (M5S) candidates are too inexperienced for parliament, while supporters say they could bring a much-needed breath of fresh air.

"No one knows who will win, it's all very confused," said Gionni Rossi, a 42-year old restaurateur. "The young people will vote for Grillo and the M5S, which could be interesting. In any case, they couldn't do worse than their predecessors."

Most recent polls indicate that Bersani will win easily in the lower house of parliament but will fail to garner a majority in the upper house, meaning he will have to weave together a coalition in order to govern.

This could mean an alliance with the economics professor Monti, who is expected to come in fourth place. A partnership between the free-marketeer Monti and radical leftists who support Bersani could be uneasy, analysts warn.

Politics professor Roberto D'Alimonte has said these elections are the most important in Italy since the early 1990s -- when a series of corruption scandals brought down a political order dominated by the Christian Democrats.

"In 1994, the consequences were only about us. That is not the case anymore; now they are about Europe and its future," D'Alimonte said.

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