Austerity-hit Italy prepares for landmark election

Italians hit by austerity and recession on Saturday prepared to take to the polls for an election that is being watched around Europe, a day after a mass rally in Rome showed rising social discontent.

Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist whose Five Star Movement could receive a massive protest vote and become Italy's third biggest political party after the elections on Sunday and Monday.

"Let's send them all home!" the crowd chanted on Friday -- a slogan of Grillo's campaign against mainstream politicians, many of whom have been discredited recently by a series of investigations into corruption and waste of public funds.

Grillo has promised to slash politicians' salaries, increase unemployment benefits and hold a referendum on whether Italy should retain the euro.

Candidates could not campaign on Saturday, and voter surveys have been off-limits for the two weeks leading up to the polls.

"I am worried for my country," centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the favourite in the polls, told supporters at his final rally on Friday.

Renowned film director Nanni Moretti also spoke at the event, saying said it was time to "liberate" Italy from the scandal-tainted media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi who has said he is confident of victory.

Bersani, a cigar-chomping former communist who now espouses broadly pro-market views, has said he will continue with the budget discipline enforced by Monti to the delight of financial markets.

But he will come under pressure to ease back on austerity and do more to promote growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years with unemployment at a record high of 11.2 percent.

The financial markets are monitoring closely as a return to Italy's bad old days of free-wheeling public finances could spell disaster for the eurozone beset by a debt crisis.

The elections received an unexpected boost on Saturday from Pope Benedict XVI, who met Italian President Giorgio Napolitano -- the last world leader he will meet before resigning on Thursday.

"I will pray for Italy," the pope said at the talks.

-- "A Fight Between Clowns": Berlusconi and Grillo --

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told the Stuttgarter Zeitung daily that it was "in Italy's interests" to continue with Monti's reform agenda.

Belgian daily Le Soir carried an editorial titled "Italian Elections, European Stakes".

"The real danger that threatens Italy, and therefore all of Europe, is instability," wrote the paper's editorialist Christophe Berti.

Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza said the election was "A Fight Between Clowns" -- Berlusconi and Grillo.

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 detail on electoral promises.

A case in point was Berlusconi's vow to refund to Italians -- if needed out of his own pocket -- an unpopular property tax levied by Monti. It came in an official-looking letter that prompted some to queue at post offices to claim their money back.

The billionaire, who is fighting his sixth election campaign in two decades and is a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and sex with an underage prostitute, has been rising in the polls.

The 76-year-old has pursued a populist campaign, intimating that Italy's social misery can be blamed on a "hegemonic" Germany imposing austerity.

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 early results will begin to trickle through late Monday.

More than 61,000 polling stations were set up across Italy on Saturday. Just over 47 million people can cast their ballots in the election.

Several polls indicate that Bersani may score only a half-victory by winning a 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, an economics professor who is running as head of a centrist grouping, a crucial role as a coalition partner and could bring him back to government with a ministerial portfolio.

An average of the most recent polls gave Bersani 34 percent of the vote, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent.

In the hours ahead of the vote, officials and even famous singer Adriano Celentano urged Italians to come out and vote amid fears that disillusionment and bad weather could depress the turnout.

"If you don't vote you hurt yourself," Celentano croons. "The politicians are light years away from understanding the reasons for this crisis.

"They tell me there is a new wave that started from nothing. And this avalanche is advancing like a cyclone to wipe out the rot of this nation."