Italians set to vote as Europe watches

Rome, February 24, 2013: Italians head to the polls on Sunday and on Monday for their first general election since the ousting of Silvio Berlusconi in a climate of economic crisis and amid fears of fresh political instability.

European capitals will be watching closely since, whatever the result, there is likely to be a change from outgoing technocratic premier Mario Monti's agenda of austerity and economic reforms.

The most likely winner is centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani who says he will stick to Monti's budget rigour but also create more growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years.

But 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, could come a close second.

With his showman interview skills, Berlusconi has taken to the airwaves for two months straight and has risen sharply in the polls with a promise to reimburse Italians an unpopular property tax.

He has also won votes by blaming a "hegemonic" Germany for Italy's woes.

The final day of campaigning was on Friday and candidates on Saturday were supposed to stay silent on the eve of the vote but Berlusconi apparently broke the rules by speaking to journalists.

In an interview with Greek television that was reported by Italian media, Berlusconi said: "I contradicted the lords of austerity who are now trying to get rid of me."

He said Monti was "subservient and always on his knees in front of Mrs Merkel (German Chancellor Angela Merkel) and now she does not want to lose him".

"I would give her a run for her money," he said.

The real wild card of the vote is Beppe Grillo, a boisterous former comedian turned grassroots campaigner who has channelled growing social discontent in Italy and could come third.

Polls indicate the result may not give Bersani alone a strong enough majority to rule and he may have to seek an alliance with Monti, which could bring the former Eurocrat back into government.

Polls open at 0700 GMT and close at 2100 GMT on Sunday and open again for a second day of voting at 0600 GMT on Monday and close at 1400 GMT.

Exit polls are expected immediately after that and preliminary official results will begin trickling through later on Monday and perhaps into Tuesday.

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