- Associated Press - Sunday, February 24, 2013

ROME (AP) — Will Italy stay the course with painful economic reform? Or fall back into the old habit of profligacy and inertia? These are the stakes as Italians vote in a watershed parliamentary election Sunday and Monday that could shape the future of one of Europe’s biggest economies.

Fellow European Union countries and investors are watching closely, as the decisions that Italy makes over the next several months promise to have a profound impact on whether Europe can decisively put out the flames of its financial crisis. Greece’s troubles in recent years were enough to spark a series of market panics. With an economy almost 10 times the size of Greece’s, Italy is simply too big a country for Europe, and the world, to see fail.

Leading the electoral pack is Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who has shown a pragmatic streak in supporting tough economic reforms spearheaded by incumbent Mario Monti. On Mr. Bersani’s heels is Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul seeking an unlikely political comeback after being forced from the premiership by Italy‘s debt crisis. Mr. Monti, while widely credited with saving Italy from financial ruin, is trailing badly as he pays the price for the suffering caused by austerity measures.

Then there’s the wild card: comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose protest movement against the entrenched political class has been drawing tens of thousands to rallies in piazzas across Italy. If his self-styled political “tsunami” sweeps into parliament with a big chunk of seats, Italy could be in store for a prolonged period of political confusion that would spook the markets.

Voting was generally calm. But when Mr. Berlusconi showed up at a Milan polling place to cast his ballot, three women, shouting, “Enough of Berlusconi!” pulled off their sweaters to bare their chests and display the slogan “Basta Silvio!” (“Enough of Silvio!”) scrawled on their flesh. A cordon of police, already in place for security before the former premier’s arrival, blocked Mr. Berlusconi’s direct view of the topless women.

Police detained the women for questioning. Italian news reports said the three were members of the Femen protest group.

After voting, Mr. Berlusconi described the topless protesters as “an exaggeration. There are situations that are outside the bounds of reason, and we can’t do anything about them,” he said.

While a man of the left, Mr. Bersani has shown himself to have a surprising amount in common with the center-right Mr. Monti — and the two have hinted at the possibility of teaming up in a coalition. Mr. Bersani was Mr. Monti’s most loyal backer in parliament during the respected economist’s tenure at the head of a technocratic government. And in ministerial posts in previous center-left governments, Mr. Bersani fought hard to free up such areas of the economy as energy, insurance and banking services.

But it’s uncertain that Mr. Monti will be able muster the votes needed to give Mr. Bersani’s Democratic Party a stable majority in both houses of parliament.

“Forming a government with a stable parliamentary alliance may prove tricky after elections,” said Eoin Ryan, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. “A surge in support for anti-austerity parties is raising chances of an indecisive election result and post-vote political instability.”

Another factor is turnout. Usually some 80 percent of the 50 million eligible voters go to the polls, but experts are predicting many will stay away in anger, hurting mainstream parties.

Interior Ministry figures put the turnout at noon, four hours after polls opened, at 14.9 percent of those eligible to vote for the Chamber of Deputies. That was down from the 16.5 percent turnout after four hours into voting in the last national elections, in spring 2008.

Italian elections are usually held in spring, and this balloting came amid bad weather in much of the country, including snow in the north. Rain was forecast for much of the country Monday.

When Mr. Berlusconi stepped down in November 2011, newspapers were writing his political obituary. At 76, blamed for mismanaging the economy and disgraced by criminal allegations of sex with an underage prostitute, the billionaire media baron appeared finished as a political force.

But Mr. Berlusconi has proved time and again — during 20 years at the center of Italian politics — that he should never be counted out.

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