Protest votes add to uncertainty in close Italy election

Sun Feb 24, 2013 6:43pm EST
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By James Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Italians finish voting in one of the most closely watched and unpredictable elections in years on Monday with a surge in protest votes fuelling concern that the ballot may not produce a government strong enough to pull Italy from its economic slump.

A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, has been closely watched by financial markets, still wary after the debt crisis that took the whole euro zone close to disaster and brought technocrat prime minister Mario Monti to office in 2011.

For the euro zone, the stakes are high. Italy is the third largest economy in the 17-member bloc and the prospect of political stalemate could reawaken the threat of dangerous market instability.

Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition led by the veteran former industry minister Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the race has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against austerity policies imposed by Monti and rage at a wave of corporate and political scandals.

Luigi Bartoletti, a 57-year-old salesman from Rome said he had voted for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo, who has electrified the race with a furious campaign against corruption and privilege in the elite.

"But unfortunately I don't believe there will be a stable government," he said. "The hope is that by voting for these people, even if they're inexperienced, there may be a minimum of checks on the management of public affairs."

The 5-Star Movement, heavily backed by a frustrated younger generation increasingly shut out of full-time jobs, has polled strongly and some believe it could challenge Silvio Berlusconi's PDL party as Italy's second largest political force.

But the 76 year-old Berlusconi has campaigned fiercely at the head of a centre-right coalition, pledging sweeping tax cuts and echoing Grillo's attacks on Monti, Germany and the euro in a media blitz that has halved the lead of the centre-left since the start of the year.   Continued...

Voting officials prepare ballot papers in a polling station in Rome February 24, 2013. Italians began voting on Sunday in one of the most closely watched elections in years, with markets nervous about whether it can produce a strong government to pull Italy out of recession and help resolve the euro zone debt crisis. REUTERS/Yara Nardi