Veltroni hopes for higher turnout as first day polls close

Italian polls closed after the first day of voting in an election that could see former PM Silvio Berlusconi return to power. Turnout was lower than in 2006, which could hurt centre-left challenger Walter Veltroni. Alexis Masciarelli reports.


ROME, April 13 (Reuters) - Italians voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election that could bring conservative media magnate Silvio Berlusconi back to power for the third time to  deal with a deep economic and social malaise.  The 71-year-old billionaire’s main challenger is centre-left leader Walter Veltroni, a former communist who portrays himself as a man of change, although his campaign promises of modest tax cuts and getting tough on crime are similar to Berlusconi’s.


Many of Italy’s 47 million voters were gloomy about the prospects for economic recovery and political stability as they chose their 62nd government since World War Two, especially as election laws make it hard for anyone to win a clear majority.


The centre-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi lasted just 20 months before it collapsed in January with Italy sliding towards economic recession.


“I don’t care who wins. I just want a government that lasts,” said 54-year-old teacher Francesco Antonazzi, voting in Rome on the first day of a two-day election. Voting ends at 3 p.m. on Monday and the result could be clear a few hours later.


Voter turnout was lower than during the last parliamentary election in 2006. Some 48.69 percent of voters had cast their ballots by 7 p.m., down from 52.16 percent by the same time two years ago, the government said.


Berlusconi, the only man in 50 years to have served a full five-year term as prime minister, was applauded as he swept past voters in Milan, cast his ballot and kissed a three-year-old boy. “Save us, Silvio,” one voter shouted.


Veltroni, 52, low-key leader of the Democratic Party, waited in a long queue in Rome until officials let him through to vote.


Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, led in opinion polls but his campaign at times lacked the flamboyance that won him power in 1994 and 2001, when he went on to serve the full term.


The usually smooth-talking leader also made several apparent slips that could cost him votes, such as insulting soccer star Francesco Totti for backing the centre left.







Italy’s morale has been battered by the struggle to find a buyer for loss-making airline Alitalia, a garbage crisis in Naples and a health scare over mozzarella cheese.


The International Monetary Fund sees the European Union’s fourth largest economy growing at just 0.3 percent this year and it has the world’s third highest debt pile in absolute terms.


Berlusconi and Veltroni both promised modest tax cuts to spur consumption. But the winner’s ability to deliver this will be hampered by complex voting rules, introduced by Berlusconi, that make it hard to win a clear majority in the upper house.


Rome builder Luciano di Pasquale, 55, voted for Berlusconi because he believed the conservative leader was more likely to improve employment and wages. “I don’t like the way Prodi governed and Veltroni is just more of the same,” he said.


Ruggero Bianchi, 63, voted for Veltroni, who has the backing of Hollywood’s George Clooney. “I have faith in the Democratic Party but I don’t think the next government is going to last more than the last one,” Bianchi said in Rome.


A third of voters were expected to decide at the last minute who to back. Many saw little difference between the platforms.


“I planned to vote for Berlusconi this time. But when I got inside the ballot box, I just couldn’t do it,” said 36-year-old Massimo Pavese in Turin. “I’ve always voted for the left.”


He voted for Veltroni, but said: “He’s got no chance of winning. His platform is practically the same as Berlusconi’s and people are too disappointed with the Prodi government.”


A close race could force the winner into a coalition with smaller parties. Veltroni and Berlusconi, the only ones with a real chance of being premier, deny they might form a coalition.

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