Uncertain outlook as Berlusconi rises in Italy vote

A spectre of instability hangs over Italy's political future, with Silvio Berlusconi's comeback in the polls just two weeks ahead of the election increasing uncertainty over whether the frontrunning centre-left can form a solid majority.

Final polls published Friday showed that billionaire Berlusconi, running in his sixth campaign, has narrowed the gap to as little as four points between the centre-right and the centre-left.

The left, headed by former Communist Pier Luigi Bersani, is now credited with between 31.1 and 35.5 percent of the vote, while the right has crept up to between 28.5 and 30.5 percent.

While no political analyst is forecasting a Berlusconi victory, several are concerned about the need for a workable government that can push through reforms at a time of deep crisis for Italy.

"The obvious risk is that (Bersani's) Democratic Party and (centrist leader Mario) Monti get into bed together and the government falls within a year or six months," said James Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome.

"The risks for the Italian economy should that happen are great," he said, in reference to Italy's debt crisis troubles, which observers fear could flare up again should Berlusconi get into power and undo key reforms implemented by Monti.

Pollster Nicola Piepoli rejected the idea that the media tycoon's recent promises to the electorate -- such as refunding a controversial property tax -- could see him sweep into the lead.

"Berlusconi has done the most he can. But Bersani is ahead and that's where he'll stay," he said.

Roberto Weber, head of the SWG polling institute, agreed. "I expect the margin seen today to be confirmed after the vote," he said.

But while Bersani is still tipped to win, it looks increasingly likely that the head of the Democratic Party will to have to form an alliance with outgoing Premier Monti to secure a majority.

"If the polls are correct, the situation is not catastrophic: Bersani and Monti can form a majority in the Senate," political science professor Roberto D'Alimonte said.

Berlusconi's swift rise in popularity has sparked concern among political observers that the media magnate may manage to steal back enough votes to seriously weaken the future government.

The left is also likely to lose some votes to comedian Beppe Grillo, whose Five Star Movement's stellar success among the young in particular has unnerved the traditional parties.

Analysts say the worse-case scenario could see Bersani and Monti team up to govern for a matter of months before the government collapses and new elections are called -- raising fears of a return to the sort of political instability and rapid changeover which plagued post-war Italy.

Most of the polls place Monti fourth behind Grillo -- but the former eurocrat is widely supported by international observers who credit him with having saved Italy from the financial crisis, so a deal with the PD would reassure Italy's European partners.

"Whoever wins, Grillo has already changed Italian politics. He's not going to have a few radicals in parliament, they're going to be a significant presence," Walston said.

He is not the only unlikely candidate to be stealing votes from the bigs.

Foppish business journalist Oscar Giannino is chipping away at Berlusconi's core support with a pro-business platform, while former anti-mafia prosecutor, Antonio Ingroia, is taking votes from Bersani.

But it is Berlusconi who has stunned observers by slashing the 15 percent lead the centre-left had on him just two months ago.

At an election rally in Rome this week, hundreds of diehard supporters young and old chanted "Silvio! Silvio!" as the former cruise ship crooner charmed them with wisecracks and stage antics.

The rally wrapped up with his campaign anthem: "Thank God Silvio's Here!"