Rome, Feb. 24 (Reuters): Italians voted today in one of the most closely watched and unpredictable elections in years, with pent-up fury over a discredited elite adding to concern it may not produce a government strong enough to lead Italy out of an economic slump.
The election, which concludes on Monday afternoon, is being followed closely by investors; their memories are still fresh of the potentially catastrophic debt crisis that saw Mario Monti, an economics professor and former bureaucrat, summoned to serve as Prime Minister in place of Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago.
A weak Italian government could, many fear, prompt a new dip in confidence in the European Union’s single currency.
Opinion polls give the centre-left a narrow lead but the result has been thrown completely open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against the painful austerity measures imposed by Monti’s government and deep anger over a never-ending series of corruption scandals. Berlusconi’s centre-right has also revived.
“I’m not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems,” said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old builder in Milan, who voted for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo.
The 64-year-old Grillo, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians hit by record unemployment, has been one of the biggest features of the last stage of the campaign, packing rallies in town squares up and down Italy.
“He’s the only real new element in a political landscape where we’ve been seeing the same faces for too long,” said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in the Sicilian capital Palermo.
Italians started voting at 8am. Polling booths will remain open until 10pm on Sunday and open again between 7am and 3pm on Monday. Exit polls will come out soon after voting ends and official results are expected by early Tuesday.
Snow in northern regions is expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million people eligible to vote in Italy to head out to polling stations, though the interior ministry has said it is fully prepared for bad weather.