ROME: Italians fed up with austerity voted yesterday in the country’s most important election in a generation, as Europe held its breath for signs of fresh instability in the eurozone’s third economy.
Millions turned out to vote for the first time since billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was ousted in 2011 during a wave of financial market panic and was replaced by former Eurocrat Mario Monti.
“This is a chance to change Italy,” said Ida, a 48-year-old computer company employee, voting at a polling station in a school in Rome where entire families came out to vote, forming long queues.
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.
Centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani is the most likely winner, but analysts say he may fall short of a majority and need to weave together a coalition that could prove unsteady.
Bersani has promised to stick to Monti’s budget discipline but says he will do more for growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hits record highs.
“I am voting for the Democratic Party. I don’t want us to end up like Greece,” said Alessandro, a 63-year-old manager, as he cast his ballot in Milan.
The scandal-tainted Berlusconi could come a close second. “There’s a lot of confusion in these elections. I’m voting Berlusconi. I know he has his defects but he’s the best,” said Maria Teresa Gottardi, 65. But many Italians disagree, like voter Sara Di Gregori, a 30-year-old lawyer in Rome, who warned: “If Berlusconi returns, it would be a disaster.”
The wild card in third place, according to the polls, could be a new protest party led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo who has channelled growing social discontent and anger against politicians.
An average of the last opinion polls made public gave Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent.
Polling stations close at 2100 GMT and open again for a second day of voting at 0600 GMT today, closing at 1400 GMT. Exit polls are expected immediately after the close and preliminary official results will begin trickling through later today.