Italians began voting yesterday in one of the most closely watched elections in years, with markets nervous about whether it can produce a strong government to pull Italy out of recession and help resolve the eurozone debt crisis.
Some of the first people to cast their ballots expressed fears that no clear winner would emerge, leading to political stalemate and a coalition that may not govern for long.
“I think we will have to go to elections again ... I expect instability for the next two years,” said Vincenzo D’Ouria, voting in Milan.
Italians started voting at 8am, with voting continuing to 10pm yesterday. Polling stations open again between 7am and 3pm today. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early tomorrow.
The election is being followed closely by financial markets with memories still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that brought technocrat Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti to power more than a year ago.
Monti and his wife cast their votes at a polling booth in Milan yesterday. His centrist bloc would only enter a future government as a junior partner of a bigger party.
Final polls published two weeks ago showed centrer-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani with a five-point lead, but analysts disagree about whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can make the economic reforms Italy needs.
Bersani is now thought to be just a few points ahead of center-right rival Silvio Berlusconi, the four-times prime minister who has promised tax refunds and staged a media blitz in an bid to win back voters.
A huge final rally by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo on Friday highlighted public anger at traditional parties.
Grillo’s 5-Star movement, made up of political novices, is in third place in its first general election, polls suggest, and popular support from voters across the political spectrum has increased uncertainty about the outcome.
“Italians want change, but you cannot achieve that with Grillo. They are far too inexperienced for the Italian parliamentary machine,” said Cristina Rossi, 40, a civil engineer who was on her way to vote in Milan.
“I fear the outcome will be a weak government, but maybe this is just a necessary transition to be able, in one or two years, to chose someone who can really govern Italy,” she said.
Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, is stuck in deep recession, struggling under a public debt burden second only to Greece’s in the 17-member currency bloc and with a public weary of more than a year of austerity policies.
Berlusconi hogged the headlines yesterday after he used a news conference at his soccer club AC Milan’s training ground to break the campaign silence imposed on politicians in the day before polls open.
He told reporters that Italy’s magistrates were “more dangerous than the Sicilian mafia” and had invented allegations he had held sex parties in order to discredit him.
The 76-year-old billionaire was criticized by his rivals for making a political statement during a ban on campaigning.
While the center-left is expected to gain control of the lower house, thanks to rules that guarantee a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally, a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate, which any government also needs to control to be able to pass laws.
Seats in the upper house are awarded on a region-by-region basis, meaning that support in key areas can decisively influence the overall result.