After an acrimonious campaign, Italians have been voting in a two-day parliamentary election that could go down to the wire.
For many the contest is a referendum on the record of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who trailed his centre-left rival Romano Prodi by up to five percentage points in the last opinion poll published two weeks ago.
Berlusconi voted in Milan, accompanied by his 95-year-old mother.
After voting he said, “I’m off to the restaurant now with mamma, just like young sweethearts.” Analysts say a large turnout on Sunday and Monday would offer the greatest chance of survival for what is already Italy’s longest-serving post-war government.
Romano Prodi beat Berlusconi in the 1996 election and was premier for two years.
If elected again, he would need to manage a disparate coalition, ranging from die-hard communists to centrist Roman Catholics.
Whatever the result, political analysts expect it to take at least a month until a new government can be formed.
Prodi, known as the “professor”, was refusing to make any predictions about the elections. After voting with his wife in Bologna, he simply stated: “They’re very important because Italy’s an important country.”
Prodi’s supporters accuse Berlusconi of economic mismanagement and embarrassing Italy with a constant stream of gaffes.
The prime minister has battled to fend off prosecution for alleged corruption and conflict of interest over his media empire.
But he has made that fight part of his election campaign, claiming the judiciary and the press are out to get him.
He also used an unusually vulgar term, roughly equivalent to “pricks”, for anyone thinking of voting for the left.
The verdict of the electorate is due late on Monday evening.