( AFP ) - Italian voters were to spend Saturday mulling over their choice in an election that offers little hope for significant change as the country faces an economic slowdown and continued political instability.
While voter surveys have predicted a return to the premiership for a third time by centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, his once comfortable lead over challenger Walter Veltroni has narrowed significantly since early February.
Commentators fear a narrow win -- or even a loss -- for Berlusconi's People of Freedom party in the Senate, which would guarantee the legislative gridlock that ended the 20-month-old centre-left government of Romano Prodi.
Ironically, the electoral law that was pushed through by Berlusconi just months before the 2006 elections was expressly designed to hobble the expected Prodi government in the upper house, observers said.
Prodi's government had several close calls in the Senate before it finally collapsed in January when a small centrist party with just three seats withdrew its support.
Some 15 percent of the 50 million electorate remained undecided ahead of the vote on Sunday and Monday as Veltroni, 52, and the 71-year-old Berlusconi made their final appeals.
The former Rome mayor urged voters to "turn the page" on the older generation represented by Berlusconi, who for his part has cast Veltroni as a communist relic.
Berlusconi said on Thursday that Veltroni's Democratic Party, formed in October, was only the latest incarnation of the Italian Communist Party and accused his rival of running "a campaign of lies."
Berlusconi's attacks began late in an otherwise lacklustre campaign that has seen both men pledge lower taxes and less government spending.
Whoever wins on Monday will have to contend with a stalling economy, a populace disaffected with the political class and all-too-familiar legislative gridlock.
The new prime minister will also have to act quickly to resolve a waste disposal crisis in the southern Naples region and clinch an elusive deal with Air France-KLM to take over the failing Alitalia airline or, likely, oversee its liquidation.
Both issues have deepened a general malaise in Italy, which has seen more than 60 governments come and go since World War II.
At a youthful 52, Veltroni is already an old hand in Italian politics, which he entered as a communist youth activist in the 1970s.
The Rome native claims a double affiliation with US president John F. Kennedy and Enrico Berlinguer, the old communist party leader who broke ranks with the Soviet Union in 1976.
Veltroni, who authored a biography of slain US attorney general Robert Kennedy, received a boost on Friday from his widow Ethel, who wished him luck in the polls as she celebrated her 80th birthday.
The pro-US candidate has criss-crossed the nation by bus emulating US Republican presidential candidate John McCain's Straight Talk Express, and his campaign slogan "It Can Be Done" is a deliberate echo of US Democrat candidate Barack Obama's "Yes We Can."
Mindful of Prodi's tumultuous two years at the helm of an unwieldy coalition, Veltroni has spurned the far left as well as the centre.
Berlusconi, for his part, in a break from past campaigns, has lowered expectations, saying "we can't perform miracles" as he unveiled his platform in late February.
Given global economic conditions, he said: "It's hard to make people dream."
Beyond problems of Italy's image, the economy grew just 1.5 percent last year, and the outlook for 2008 is bleaker still at 0.6 percent.
Berlusconi's first government, elected in 1994, collapsed after just seven months when it lost the support of a right-wing ally. Further failure followed when he lost the 1996 election to Prodi.
He triumphed in 2001 to become the only Italian politician to complete a full five-year mandate, before losing again to Prodi by just a handful of votes in 2006.