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Politics-fatigued Italians vote in election that could put Berlusconi back in power

Monday, April 14, 2008

ROME -- Italians fed up with the governing class and a stagnant economy voted Sunday in early parliamentary elections that could return conservative billionaire Silvio Berlusconi to power.

The 71-year-old media mogul's main opponent is Walter Veltroni, a center-left former mayor of Rome who has promised deep reforms and an ideology-free approach to tackling the country's problems.

A sense of malaise hung over the elections, with Italians pessimistic that the ruling class -- dominated for years by the same key figures -- can offer much chance of change.

"I'm not sure if I am going to vote," said 47-year-old Carlo Brunetti in central Rome. "I have little faith this time."

The election comes three years early due to the premature collapse of Romano Prodi's left-wing government. Italy has a history of political instability, with more than 60 governments since World War II.

Suffering economy

Whoever wins will face Italy's perpetual dilemma -- improving the economy, the world's seventh largest. It has underperformed the rest of the euro zone for years and the International Monetary Fund forecasts growth of 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average growth for the 15-country euro area.

Italian governments on both sides have failed to make the structural reforms that economists say are needed -- either for lack of political will or consensus.

On the household level, Italians are pressured by rising prices and salaries are among the lowest in Western Europe.

Signs of decline abound, from piles of trash in Naples, to a buffalo mozzarella heath scare that has hurt exports and hit one of the country's culinary treasures, to the faltering sale of the state airline Alitalia. Italians increasingly blame the governing class -- not just one political force or another -- for the failure to solve the nation's problems.

There are 945 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the vote, which was scheduled to last until 10 p.m. Sunday and then resume this morning until early afternoon.

Turnout was running at 64 percent late Sunday, slightly behind the 66 percent at the same time during the last vote in 2006.

Major candidates

Berlusconi, who has been prime minister twice before, led elections polls two weeks ago, but more recent polls showed Veltroni making a comeback. Whether Veltroni can prevail could depend on those who are undecided, a significant portion of the nation's 47 million voters, analysts say.

Berlusconi appeared to have a clearer lead in the lower house, while the vote for the Senate was expected to be more of a contest.

Veltroni, at 52 nearly 20 years Berlusconi's junior, has pledged to lead generational change, while at the same time saying the left-wing he represents differs from Prodi's -- which found itself hostage to small parties on the more extreme left that hampered his reform plans.

To avoid the same problems, Veltroni has spurned the far-left.

Berlusconi, vying for his third stint as premier in the last 14 years, has blamed the outgoing center-left government for the country's problems.

Prodi, whose last government lasted only 20 months, is not running.


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