Austerity-weary Italy votes in crucial eurozone election

Italians fed up with austerity voted on Sunday in the country's most important election in a generation, as Europe watched for signs of fresh instability in the eurozone's third economy.

Millions turned out to vote for the first time since billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was ousted in 2011 in a wave of financial market panic to be replaced by former Eurocrat Mario Monti.

"This is a chance to change Italy," said Ida, 48, a computer company employee, casting her ballot at a polling station in a school in Rome where entire families came out to vote, forming long queues.

There was a commotion as Berlusconi went to vote in Milan when three topless feminists from the Ukrainian women's power group Femen braved a light snow to hurl themselves towards him with "Basta Silvio" ("Enough With Silvio") scrawled on their backs.

For all the attention on Berlusconi though, centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani is the most likely winner, but analysts say he may fall short of a majority and need to assemble a coalition that could prove unsteady.

"We want to turn the page" after Berlusconi, the cigar-chomping Bersani said in an interview with the left-wing daily L'Unita published on Sunday.

"Our success will strengthen the battle in Europe for growth and equity," said the former communist, adding that markets "need someone who can put the country back on a safe course".

Bersani has promised to stick to Monti's budget discipline but says he will do more for growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hits record highs.

"I am voting for the Democratic Party. I don't want us to end up like Greece," said Alessandro, a 63-year-old manager, as he cast his ballot in Milan.

The scandal-tainted Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister who is also a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and having sex with an underage prostitute, is expected to come a close second.

"There's a lot of confusion in these elections. I'm voting Berlusconi. I know he has his defects, but he's the best," said Maria Teresa Gottardi, 65.

But many Italians disagree, like voter Sara Di Gregori, a 30-year-old lawyer in Rome, who warned: "If Berlusconi returns, it would be a disaster."

The wild card in third place, according to the polls, could be a new protest party led by former comedian Beppe Grillo who has channelled growing social discontent and anger against politicians.

The "Grillini" -- as Grillo's followers are known -- could be a disruptive force in parliament and Grillo has called for Italy's debts to be cancelled and a referendum on whether to stay in the eurozone.

Grillo built up the suspense, with journalists still waiting for him late Sunday at his local polling station in a posh district in the port city of Genoa, far outnumbering actual voters.

-- 'A wake-up call' --

An average of the last opinion polls made public gave Bersani 34 percent, Berlusconi 30 percent, Grillo 17 percent and Monti around 11 percent.

Polling stations close at 2100 GMT on Sunday and open again for a second day of voting at 0600 GMT on Monday, closing at 1400 GMT.

Exit polls are expected immediately after the close, and preliminary official results will begin trickling in later on Monday.

Officials have called on Italians to vote amid fears that general disenchantment with politics could depress turnout.

As of 1100 GMT, turnout was 14.94 percent, lower than the 16.54 percent who had voted by the same time in 2008 elections, the interior ministry said.

Forty-seven million Italians are eligible to vote.

Caterina, a 19-year-old in Milan, said she was glad to be voting after 18 months of a technocratic, unelected government that was installed by parliament after the fall of Berlusconi.

"Voting is very important. The Democratic Party are the only ones who can solve our problems," she said.

The elections are being seen as the most important since 1994 when Berlusconi won his first victory after a series of massive corruption scandals wiped out Italy's entire post-war political system dominated by the Christian Democrats.

"Italians are called on to make a choice that is in many ways historic," political analyst Roberto D'Alimonte said.

"In 1994, the consequences were only about us. That is not the case any more; now they are about Europe and its future," he said.

Berlusconi has risen sharply in the polls with a promise to reimburse an unpopular property tax and will likely win votes with his slogans blaming Italy's crisis on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The flamboyant media tycoon was forced out in November 2011 following a parliamentary revolt, a myriad of sex scandals and talk of impending bankruptcy for Italy.

The sober Monti, a former economics professor, has brought the markets to heel and restored Italy's image as a key player in the eurozone debate.

Italy is the euro area's third largest economy after Germany and France and a major exporter.

While its debt is sky-high -- second only to Greece's -- Italy's public deficit is under control.

As Berlusconi and Monti have multiplied austerity measures in recent years, many Italians have been driven into dire straits financially.

"I'm voting Grillo, it's a protest vote. The whole political system is rotten," said Daniele, 47, a taxi driver and father of two in Milan.

"It will be a wake-up call," he said.