Italians scurried to the polls today through rain and blizzards to decide who will take over the reigns of the Eurozone’s most indebted economy - with money speculators watching like hawks.
The pro-European, centre-left Democratic Party is the favourite to win the election, when the polls close at 3pm on Monday.
But predictions of a huge protest vote for the comedian and anti-establishment figure Beppe Grillo have raised the prospect of unstable government and the return to financial chaos seen when the last Silvio Berlusconi administration collapsed in November 2011.
"Forming a government with a stable parliamentary alliance may prove tricky after elections," said Eoin Ryan, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. He said Mr Grillo’s popularity was “raising chances of an indecisive election result and post-vote political instability”.
Much of the political establishment – in Berlin and Brussels as well as Rome – is pinning its hopes on a Democratic Party government with support in the Senate from outgoing Eurocrat premier Mario Monti.
Mr Grillo’s Five Star Movement, made up of activitists with no parliamentary experience, wants a referendum on Euro membership as well as an end to austerity measures. But it is scandal-tainted ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, the populist figure apparently eclipsed by Mr Grillo, who remains the market’s main bogeyman, say some analysts.
Pollster Renato Mannheimer said foreign banks deliberating on whether or not to hold on to Italian bonds. were “worried mostly about the return of Berlusconi”.
As if blizzards and threat of Beppe Grillo ransacking Parliament were not enough, three topless feminists from the Ukrainian protest group Femen provided extra excitement at a Milan polling station by hurling themselves at 76-year-old Mr Berlusconi, the leader of the centre-right, as he arrived at a polling station to cast his vote.
The young women had the slogan "Basta Berlusconi" ("Enough of Berlusconi") scrawled on their backs. They were quickly dragged off by police officers.
The most recent official poll - taken two weeks before the vote - suggested the protesters’ and investors’ wishes would be granted, however. The centre-left Democratic Party, headed by Pierluigi Bersani, led with 33 per cent of the vote, against 28 percent for Mr Berlusconi's coalition with the populist Northern League. Mr Grillo’s Five Star movement was in a surprise third place, with 17 percent support, while Mr Monti's centrist coalition had 13 percent.
But an internal poll carried out by the Democratic Party in the days up to the election suggest a surge by Beppe Grillo may make his Five Star Movement the second biggest party, ahead of Mr Berlusconi’s PDL (People of Liberty party).
Despite the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the election, many Italian voters today held out little prospect for change in the near future.
“It doesn’t matter who wins because they’re all idiots,” said Massimiliano Barisone, 40, outside the polling booth in Via Brunacci in Milan today. “Even if Grillo wins, we’ll be back at the polls in six months. Italy needs a Margaret Thatcher.”
Paola Landri, 36, said: “After a month in parliament even Grillo’s people may have their hands in the till. It’s the system that needs changing. But we haven’t got enough good people to do it. So it’s a vicious circle.”