Austerity-hit Italy prepares for landmark election
Italians hit by austerity and recession on Saturday prepared to take to the polls for an election that could reverberate throughout the eurozone, a day after a mass rally in Rome showed rising discontent.
Tens of thousands of people turned out for Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist whose grassroots Five Star Movement could receive a massive protest vote and become Italy's third biggest political party after the elections on Sunday and Monday.
"Let's send them all home!" the crowd chanted on Friday -- a slogan of Grillo's campaign against mainstream politicians, many of whom have been discredited recently by a series of investigations into corruption and waste of public funds.
La Repubblica daily called Grillo the "Rock Star of Populism", while La Stampa spoke of an "apocalyptic climate" and top-selling Corriere della Sera said in an editorial: "An entire system is disappearing."
Grillo has promised to slash politicians' salaries, increase unemployment benefits and hold a referendum on whether Italy should retain the euro.
No campaigning is allowed by candidates on Saturday.
"I am worried for my country," centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the favourite in the polls, told supporters at his final rally on Friday.
Renowned film director Nanni Moretti also appeared at the event and said it was time to "liberate" Italy from the scandal-tainted Silvio Berlusconi.
Outgoing premier Mario Monti promised to overhaul the labour market to create more jobs in a speech in Florence and three-time prime minister Berlusconi said he was confident he would win.
Bersani, a cigar-chomping former communist who now espouses broadly pro-market views, has said he will continue with the budget discipline enforced by Monti to the delight of financial markets.
But he will come under pressure to ease back on austerity and do more to promote growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment is at a record high of 11.2 percent.
European capitals will be watching closely as a return to Italy's bad old days of free-wheeling public finances could spell disaster for the eurozone as it tries to climb out of a debt crisis.
With everything at stake, the campaign has been remarkably underwhelming, with few rallies and a lot of back-and-forth in television interviews that have provided little detail on electoral promises.
A case in point was Berlusconi's vow to refund Italians -- if needed out of his own pocket -- an unpopular property tax levied by Monti in an official-looking letter that prompted some to queue at post offices to claim their money back.
The billionaire, who is fighting his sixth election campaign in two decades in politics and is a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and sex with an underage prostitute, could come a close second.
Berlusconi has pursued a populist campaign, intimating that Italy's social misery can be blamed on a "hegemonic" Germany imposing austerity.
Polls open at 0700 GMT on Sunday and close at 1900 GMT. A second day of voting on Monday begins at 0600 GMT and ends at 1400 GMT, after which early results will begin to trickle through late Monday.
Several polls indicate that Bersani may score only a half-victory by winning a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, but failing to get one in the upper house, the Senate.
That would give Monti, an economics professor who is running as head of a centrist grouping, a crucial role as a coalition partner and could bring him back to government with a ministerial posting.
An average of the most recent polls gave Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent of the vote.
Coming after the last polls were made public, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation could boost the church-going Monti and stop Berlusconi as it has drawn away the media attention that the showman tycoon has often relied on.