Italians voted in their second general election in two years, and their 62nd since the war, in the knowledge that the result could well be a stalemate, and yet more elections down the road.
In many polling stations yesterday, the turnout was down from the historically high figures of 2006, reflecting growing disillusionment with politicians across the political spectrum. Voting is spread over two days, so the exit polls will not be published until this afternoon.
A voter in Sorrento, south of Naples, described by police as a 41-year-old limoncello producer, was arrested at a polling station after taking the oversize ballot paper which bears all the parties' symbols, then calmly tearing it into small pieces and eating it. He was charged by police with destroying election materials. Later he said: "All the politicians disgust me, I don't feel represented by anyone."
Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping for a third term in office, went into the campaign with a lead of 5 to 10 points but his increasingly frantic appeals to voters during the past week suggests that his confidence has waned. His personal popularity remains high, but at 71 his age may go against him.
Many blame him for wasting the chance to reform the country radically during his five years as prime minister, when he enjoyed a large parliamentary majority. Italy's negligible growth and huge public debt are legacies of those years.
His opponent on the centre-left, Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome, has struggled to distance himself from the bickering and ineffectuality that characterised the brief life of Romano Prodi's centre-left government, brought down in February by the defection of a coalition ally.
Mr Veltroni has launched the centrist Democratic Party, an attempt to bring liberal ex-Christian Democrats and moderate former Communists together and heal the Catholic/Communist divide, which has defined post-war Italy.
His deliberately low-key campaign, in which he refused to throw mud at his rival or even mention his name, has seen him criss-cross the country in an ecologically clean coach, while Mr Berlusconi city-hopped in his customised Airbus.
"The race is looking very tight," said James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University of Rome. "The problem is that nobody is really concerned with Italy's fundamental problems."
At a polling station in Rome, Stella Bianchi, 48, a university lecturer, said: "I'm voting because it's my democratic duty but the excitement of two years ago has evaporated. There is so little to choose between the programmes of right and left." A middle-aged man who declined to be identified, commented: "Both Berlusconi and Prodi were elected with the hope that they would do something to turn the country round, but where do we go from here? It's a mess."
Mr Prodi's government was hogtied from the outset by its tiny majority in the Senate, and its successor could face the same problem. In that situation, the President would try to install a technical government mandated to reform the electoral law – then call new elections.Reuse content