Voter turnout in Italy's general elections stood at 62.5 percent on Sunday evening, down from 2006, according to the Interior ministry. Italian voters have until Monday evening to cast their ballot.
Italians widely fed up with politics as usual were to wrap up two days of voting on Monday in general elections that may return conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi to power for a third time.
Returning to the polls just two years after electing the unwieldy coalition of centre-left leader Romano Prodi, voters balked at the choices on offer for pulling Italy out of its political and economic doldrums.
As the first day of polling ended at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT) Sunday, turnout stood at 62.5 percent, down four percentage points from the same juncture two years ago, the interior ministry said.
Final turnout figures following a second day of polling have regularly topped 80 percent in Italy's general elections.
Now 71, media tycoon Berlusconi is taking on 52-year-old former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni in the polls to elect Italy's 63rd government in as many years against the backdrop of a stumbling economy and chronic political instability.
More than half of Italians surveyed two weeks ago -- 51.4 percent, way up from 36 percent a year ago -- felt worse off economically.
The economy grew just 1.5 percent last year, and the outlook for 2008 is bleaker still at 0.6 percent.
A general malaise was reflected in the last opinion surveys that showed one-third of Italy's 47 million voters undecided.
Dramatising the pessimistic mood on Sunday, one voter in the southern town of Sorrento tore up and ate his ballot instead of casting it, the ANSA news agency reported.
"I knew this would get me into trouble, but I thought it was important to do it," said Ciro D'Esposito, 41, who was detained for questioning after the incident. "What future are we preparing for our children? Who should I have voted for? Something has to change."
Veltroni urged voters to "turn the page" on the older generation represented by Berlusconi, who for his part cast his rival as a communist relic.
Berlusconi, notorious for gaffes and derided for efforts to hide his advancing age and receding hairline, is implicated in a string of corruption probes and ran up a budget deficit equal to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) during his second premiership.
Veltroni, though nearly 20 years younger, is an older player in Italian politics, which he entered as a communist youth activist in the 1970s.
Rome's mayor for seven years until he resigned to lead the new Democratic Party (PD) in the polls, Veltroni ran under the slogan "It Can Be Done" in a deliberate echo of US Democrat candidate Barack Obama's "Yes We Can."
Hoping to avoid the fractiousness of the motley Prodi coalition that won by a handful of votes in 2006, Veltroni, a former Marxist, spurned the far left as well as the centre when he set up his new American-style Democratic Party last year.
Berlusconi, a self-made billionaire at the head of a vast media empire who goes by the nickname Il Cavaliere (the knight), enjoyed a double-digit lead over Veltroni as campaigning began in February.
But two weeks ago, the last polls allowed ahead of the balloting reduced Berlusconi's edge to six or seven percent.
As the race tightened, chances grew that Berlusconi may fail to secure a viable majority in the Senate -- or even fall short in the upper house -- thanks to Italy's most recent electoral law.
If that happens, the twice former premier will have himself to blame, since he was behind the legislation passed hurriedly ahead of the 2006 vote won by Prodi.
The rules allot Senate seats on a regional basis, which can lead to skewed results on the national level, since the winning list in each region automatically gets 55 percent of that region's seats while the runners-up split the rest.
Observers said the legislation was a deliberate bid to limit Prodi's expected victory in the 2006 polls.
The possibility of a hung parliament led centrist candidate Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of the Union of Christian Democrats (UDC), to suggest that he take up the premiership to become a referee between the two large blocs.
Polling stations were to reopen on Monday at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).
Exit polls and preliminary results are expected soon after polls close at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) on Monday, though the interior ministry said last week that vote-counting would be slower than usual because of stepped-up scrutiny.
Date created : 2008-04-14