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Italy was poised to hold its most important elections in a generation starting on Sunday, as financial markets warned an unclear outcome could plunge the eurozone's third economy back into crisis.
Italians will cast their ballots as they grapple with the longest recession in two decades and several rounds of austerity cuts that have caused deep resentment and could favour a low turnout and a high number of protest votes.
The most likely outcome is a centre-left government led by Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, a cigar-chomping former communist with a down-to-earth manner who now espouses broadly pro-market economic views.
But the result is by no means certain and whether Bersani will be able to form a stable coalition is in doubt. Some fear there may have to be another election within months after a reform of a maddeningly complex electoral law.
With everything at stake, the campaign has been remarkably underwhelming, with few rallies and a lot of back-and-forth in television interviews that have provided little or no detail on sometimes extravagant programme promises.
A case in point was Silvio Berlusconi's promise to refund Italians an unpopular property tax levied by Prime Minister Mario Monti's government in a letter that prompted some to queue up to claim their money back immediately.
European capitals and foreign investors will be watching closely as a return to Italy's free-wheeling public finances could spell disaster for the eurozone.
"We believe that a risk exists that after the February 24-25 elections there may be a loss of momentum on important reforms to improve Italian growth prospects," Standard & Poor's ratings agency said in a report this week.
London-based Capital Economics warned that even with a stable governing majority "huge underlying economic problems suggest that it may only be a matter of time before concerns about the public finances begin to build again."
"And a hung parliament might plunge Italy and the eurozone back into crisis rather sooner," the independent economic research company said this week.
Polls open at 0700 GMT on Sunday and close at 1900 GMT. A second day of voting on Monday begins at 0600 GMT and ends at 1400 GMT, after which preliminary results will begin to trickle through late Monday and into Tuesday.
-- Wild card --
The wild card in the election will be Beppe Grillo, a tousle-haired former comedian whose mix of invective and idealism appeals to protest voters fed up with corrupt politicians. He has spoken to packed squares across Italy.
Bersani has said he will follow the course set by Monti, a former high-flying European commissioner roped in to replace the scandal-tainted Berlusconi who was forced to step down in November 2011.
But Bersani will come under immediate pressure to row back on austerity and do more to create jobs in an economy where an already record-high unemployment rate of 11.2 percent masks far higher joblessness among women and young people.
A Bersani victory is far from a sure thing mainly because of the rapid rise in the polls of Berlusconi, the irrepressible 76-year-old billionaire tycoon who is still in the game even after 20 tumultuous years in Italian politics.
This is the sixth election campaign for Berlusconi, who has been prime minister three times, has survived multiple court cases, sex scandals and diplomatic gaffes and has turned into something of an international pariah.
One recent poll said he was within 2.5 points of catching up with Bersani.
Berlusconi has pursued a populist campaign, intimating that Italy's current social misery can be blamed on a "hegemonic" Germany imposing austerity.
The president of the European Parliament, who was once invited to play the role of a Nazi camp guard by Berlusconi during a speech when he was still prime minister, has warned Italians not to vote for the flamboyant tycoon.
"Berlusconi has already sent Italy into a tailspin with irresponsible government action and personal capers," Martin Schulz told German tabloid Bild, adding that Italy should not lose its new found confidence in Europe.
Several polls indicate that Bersani may score only a half-victory by managing to secure a stable majority in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, but failing to get one in the upper house, the Senate.
That would give Monti, a somewhat staid economics professor who is running as head of an eclectic centrist grouping, a crucial role as a coalition partner and could bring him back into a government with a ministerial posting.
An average of the most recent polls, which cannot be published in the two weeks leading up to the election, would give Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti between 10 and 12 percent of the vote.
Coming after the last polls were made public, Pope Benedict XVI's resignation could boost the church-going Monti and stop Berlusconi as it has drawn away the media attention that the showman tycoon has often relied on.
The run-up to the vote has also been marked by a succession of high-profile corruption inquiries against politicians and business leaders in a period similar to one in the early 1990s that brought down an entire political class.
Monti has said that the storm of scandals marks "the end of an era".