Italians vote in election that may bring back Berlusconi

Voting comes amid worries of economic recession and disillusionment toward political class blamed for failing to solve nation's problems.

Italian elections 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Italian elections 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Italians voted Sunday in a general election that could return conservative billionaire Silvio Berlusconi to power amid a widespread sense of national decline and fears that no candidate will be able to put the country back on track. Polls opened across Italy at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and the voting was scheduled to last until 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). Balloting resumes Monday morning until early afternoon. The voting is being held under a discredited election law seen as fostering instability. It comes amid worries of economic recession and disillusionment toward a political class blamed for failing to solve the nation's problems. A garbage collection crisis has left tons of trash piling up on the streets of Naples. Efforts to sell the loss-making national carrier Alitalia are up in the air after a proposal by Air France-KLM has encountered the opposition of unions and political powers. A buffalo mozzarella health scare has hurt exports and hit one of the country's culinary treasures. Italy, with more than 60 Cabinets since World War II, has a history of government instability. Berlusconi, 71 and vying for his third stint as premier in the last 14 years, has blamed the outgoing center-left government and vowed to put Italy back on its feet. Despite a questionable record during his five-year term between 2001-2006, he says he is the man to do the job. His main opponent, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, has called for generational change - he is almost 20 younger than Berlusconi - and promised major reforms as well as an ideology-free approach to tackling the country's problems. Both candidates cast ballots Sunday morning - Veltroni in Rome and Berlusconi in Milan. Berlusconi entered the race as the front-runner, capitalizing on the unpopularity of the outgoing government of Romano Prodi, whose early collapse forced the vote three years ahead of schedule. But Veltroni has appeared to narrow the gap, according to polls released before a pre-election ban on publishing polls took effect. And analysts say a crucial factor might be undecided voters - a significant chunk in the electorate of 47 million. Amid campaigns to boycott the election and punish a political class seen as collectively untrustworthy, voter turnout could be another factor. The Interior Ministry said that by noon, turnout was 16.3 percent, a slight decline from the figure registered at the same time in 2006. "I'm voting for Berlusconi because he's the one who can make it. If he doesn't, we're ruined," said the 65-year-old Roberta Marini after casting her ballot in downtown Rome. "Berlusconi is strong, aggressive and he gives all he's got." Fellow voter Andrea Saba disagreed. "Bearing five more years of Berlusconi would be an outrage," said the 75-year-old retired economics professor, who also cast his ballot in the capital. "Berlusconi is surrounded by incompetents, and he's a bit out of sorts." Italy's economy has performed worse than the rest of the euro zone for the past decade. The International Monetary Fund predicts Italy's economy will grow by just 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average growth for the 15-country euro area. While the cost of living has grown, Italian salaries have not. The main candidates propose similar recipes, promising to lower taxes, cut red tape and reduce costs associated with politics, from the number of lawmakers to their salaries and perks. As a result of the national mood, the campaign has been uncharacteristically low-key - some say outright boring. Even the usually flamboyant Berlusconi has been mostly sober, while Veltroni, keeping to his mild manners, has refrained from personal attacks on his opponent. A tricky proportional-representation system might hamper the prospects of stability for whoever wins - and even raise the specter of a stalemate if no clear majority emerges in the upper house. In a bid to win independence from small and often troublesome allies, both leaders have streamlined their coalitions: Veltroni runs his new Democratic Party virtually alone, while Berlusconi is running alongside the party of Gianfranco Fini, his former foreign minister, and, in the north, with the Northern League. The move is welcomed by analysts, who say that potentially cohesive blocs - as opposed to the varied coalition assembled in the past 15 years - should enhance government stability. While Berlusconi and Veltroni are the only candidates with a realistic shot at the premiership, there is the usual plethora of parties trying to win some of the 945 parliamentary seats that are up for grabs. Their showing will be significant insofar as they can take away precious votes from either mainstream bloc. Prodi, whose last government lasted only 20 months, is not running.