(photo credit: AP)
Italians had a final day of voting Monday to deliver a verdict on conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who failed to jump-start a flat economy in his tenure as the nation's longest-serving premier since World War II.
Trying to end the flamboyant Berlusconi's tenancy in the premier's office was Romano Prodi, an economics professor and former European Commission president who defeated him for the premiership in 1996.
Polls were not allowed to be published in the two weeks before the vote, but earlier surveys gave a slight edge to Prodi.
Polls on the second day of balloting opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) for another eight hours of voting, with exit polls expected immediately after the 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) closure and first partial results a few hours later.
After 14 hours of voting on Sunday, 66.5 percent of the 47 million eligible voters had cast ballots, the Interior Ministry said.
A staunch US ally, Berlusconi, 69, founded a business empire that expanded to include Italy's main private TV networks, the Milan soccer team, as well as publishing, advertising and insurance interests.
He was battling to capture his third premiership with a center-right bloc - an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces, and the anti-immigrant Northern League.
Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists.
One potential issue - Iraq - was largely deflated before the campaign began, when Berlusconi announced that Italy's troops there would be withdrawn by year's end.
Berlusconi had strongly supported U.S. President George W. Bush despite fierce opposition among Italians against the war.
Prodi has said he would bring them home as soon as possible, security conditions permitting.
While Italians were mainly preoccupied by economic worries, the candidates seemed to toss out more insults at each other than comprehensive recipes for turning around the economy.
Berlusconi promised to abolish a homeowner's property tax. Prodi said he would revive an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi, but only for the richest. He also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.
Critics contended that Berlusconi, instead of helping the economy, used his comfortable majority in Parliament above all to push through laws to protect his business interests and to help him in his years of judicial woes. Berlusconi contends the laws benefit all Italians and that he has been the innocent victim of left-leaning prosecutors.
Berlusconi depicted Prodi as a front-man for Communists in a campaign to damage Italian democracy.
Italians were voting under a proportional system, thanks to a law pushed through by Berlusconi's government to increase the chances that his tinier allies would win seats in Parliament.
No violence was reported in voting Sunday, but a few voters at scattered polling stations demanded - some of them successfully _ that crucifixes be removed from the public schools hosting the balloting, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
In a hamlet near the town of Terni in central Italy, the head of the polling station had the crucifix removed before voters arrived, prompting protests from conservatives, ANSA said.