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Austerity-hit Italians head to the polls in crucial election

Pier Luigi Bersani's party is expected to win narrowly but strong support for former comic Beppe Grillo could leave Italy without a clear winner.

Italians cast their ballots Sunday in one of the country's most watched and hotly contested elections years.

Weary of years of strict austerity, many Italians are hoping this election brings about sweeping changes but investors are concerned that a weak government won't be able to dig Italy out of its deep economic slump, reports Reuters.

Voters have until 3pm on Monday to cast their ballots and exit poll results available shortly after will give a good picture of who will be Italy's next leader.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the center-left coalition led by Democratic Left leader Pier Luigi Bersani was narrowly ahead in the average of polls two weeks ago before a moratorium on polling went into effect.

Bersani's coalition was five points ahead of former three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right party.

According to Businessweek, the main candidates present two very different views of how to tackle the nation's financial woes.

One one side, former television comic Beppe Grillo and Berlusconi have campaigned on overturning the tax increases put into place by incumbent Mario Monti.

Bersani and Monti have both maintained that continuing austerity will fix the nation's budget.

"I'm not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems," Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old builder in Milan, who voted for Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, told Reuters.

Even if Bersani wins the majority vote, his party will likely fall short of the legislative majority needed to push through economic reforms without support from another party.

According to the Wall Street Journal, any government will also need to pick up a majority in the country's 315-seat Senate, which are won on a regional rather than a national basis.

Strong public support for both Monti and Grillo, who are both polling in double digits, could leave Italy without a clear winner in the parliamentary elections.

The winning party will likely have to form a coalition in order to hold enough seats to enact any real reforms, reports VOA.

Investors are keeping a close eye on the results and fear that an unclear majority could ding the already-shaky confidence in the European Union's single currency.

"If Berlusconi wins, the markets will be quite concerned, but if he doesn’t, if there’s a hung parliament, that’s probably about what’s expected," Alexander Friedman, global chief investment officer of UBS AG told Bloomberg.

"It still won’t be nearly as scary as it was a year ago."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/italy/130224/austerity-hit-italians-head-the-polls-crucial-election