Berlusconi and ex-mayor battle in Italian election
( Reuters ) - Italians voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election that could bring conservative media magnate Silvio Berlusconi back to power for the third time to deal with a deep economic and social malaise.
The 71-year-old billionaire's main challenger is centre-left leader Walter Veltroni, a former communist who portrays himself as a man of change, although his campaign promises of modest tax cuts and getting tough on crime are similar to Berlusconi's.
Many of Italy's 47 million voters were gloomy about the prospects for economic recovery and political stability as they chose their 62nd government since World War Two, especially as election laws make it hard for anyone to win a clear majority.
The centre-left coalition government led by Romano Prodi lasted just 20 months before it collapsed in January with Italy sliding towards economic recession.
"I don't care who wins. I just want a government that lasts," said 54-year-old teacher Francesco Antonazzi, voting in Rome on the first day of a two-day election. Voting ends at 3 p.m. on Monday and the result could be clear a few hours later.
Voter turnout was lower than during the last parliamentary election in 2006. Some 48.69 percent of voters had cast their ballots by 7 p.m., down from 52.16 percent by the same time two years ago, the government said.
Berlusconi, the only man in 50 years to have served a full five-year term as prime minister, was applauded as he swept past voters in Milan, cast his ballot and kissed a three-year-old boy. "Save us, Silvio," one voter shouted.
Veltroni, 52, low-key leader of the Democratic Party, waited in a long queue in Rome until officials let him through to vote.
Berlusconi, one of Italy's richest men, led in opinion polls but his campaign at times lacked the flamboyance that won him power in 1994 and 2001, when he went on to serve the full term.
The usually smooth-talking leader also made several apparent slips that could cost him votes, such as insulting soccer star Francesco Totti for backing the centre left.