ROME Pope Benedict's shock resignation has robbed Italians of the one element of certainty in a time of deep doubt, with the country beset by graft scandals and heading for an election that will not bring the radical change so many crave.
The pontiff has long been the one stable element for Roman Catholic Italians in a modern state that has become a byword for political instability and flawed politicians.
All that changed a week ago when Benedict announced he would be the first pontiff in 700 years to resign, causing alarm and despondency among many faithful in a country whose history has been shaped by the presence of the headquarters of the Church for 2,000 years.
"We are in a moment of social, ideological and cultural crisis and in a moment like that it is completely wrong for him to leave," said Emanuele Vitale, 22, a Sicilian student who joined around 100,000 people packed into St Peter's Square on Sunday for one of Benedict's last appearances before his resignation on February 28.
Another person in the square, pensioner Antonio Mingrone, 68, said: "It is unsettling. At a time when there are all these political conflicts and an economic crisis, it is one more thing weighing on our minds."
Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, himself a devout Catholic, referred to the "disorientation" of Italians over the pope's decision. "It seems like an epoch is changing on both sides of the Tiber and we feel robbed of points of reference."
Massimo Franco, a leading Italian political commentator and author of several books on the Vatican, told Reuters: "The resignation adds instability to instability. The Church which was a source of stability is now a major source of instability.
"Today the Vatican is a sort of mirror of Italy," Franco said. "Before it was the opposite. Now there is a chaotic Italy and chaotic Vatican."
Italians will vote next Sunday and Monday in an election whose outcome is still unpredictable at a time when the country desperately needs firm and decisive government to address a major recession, stagnant growth and soaring unemployment.
DISGUST WITH POLITICIANS
Poll after poll over the last year has shown Italians disgusted with a political class which has clung to its own privileges as the euro zone's third biggest but chronically uncompetitive economy descended deeper into crisis.
Instead they look like getting the opposite result from the one they want. The main beneficiary is likely to be Genoese comic Beppe Grillo, whose obscenity-laced diatribes against politicians have pulled in big crowds around Italy on his "tsunami" campaign tour, but whose own policies remain vague.
Grillo was quick to jump on the pope's abdication, telling a rally in northern Italy: "Everything is collapsing, even the pope has resigned."
Italians are divided over the pope's decision but many see it as an example to ageing local politicians, especially since Benedict has issued veiled complaints over the last week about Vatican rivalries, suggesting that fierce power struggles in the Curia or Church government contributed to his decision.
"For the first time a person in power has recognized he wasn't able to govern and has resigned. A bit of a clear-out would be good for Italy too. We have built an entire political system on corruption," said charity worker Marco Orlando, 34.
Despite repeated pledges, the outgoing parliament failed to repeal a despised election law known as the "pigsty" because it gives party leaders control over who gets elected and awards a giant vote bonus to the party that wins.
It also muddies the waters in the upper house, or senate, by awarding winner's bonuses on a regional basis.
In addition, lawmakers failed to remove the extravagant privileges of a political "caste" and stopped short of a broad anti-corruption law.
Right on cue - some say it is no coincidence - the final weeks of the election campaign have seen an extraordinary wave of corruption scandals that have added to the disgust of a nation already well used to graft.
SCANDALS LINKED TO ELECTION
Many Italians believe that politicized magistrates have unleashed the scandals as part of the election battle.
Two major companies, defense group Finmeccanica and oil major Eni, and Tuscan bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy's third largest lender, are being probed for crimes ranging from bribing foreign officials to accounting fraud.
Finmeccanica boss Giuseppe Orsi and four executives from other firms have been arrested, not to mention several other ongoing investigations touching all the major parties.
Pollster Maurizio Pessato, of the SWG firm, told Reuters: "The voters are saying, 'I can't take it any more, there is a scandal every day. Even the pope has denounced problems inside the Church'. It is as if you cannot have faith any more in all the ruling classes, political, economic and the Curia."
Monti, as a technocrat premier, was once seen as one of the few people who could change Italy. But he has disappointed his backers, allying with two centrist politicians who are very much a part of the existing fabric and now stuck at less than 15 percent in the polls after a hurried and badly run campaign.
He is way behind Grillo who is thought to be close to 20 percent.
Billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who at 76 hardly represents a new style of politics, has stormed back in the polls through his communication skills and masterful use of television.
But pollsters say his centre-right group is still 4-5 percentage points behind the centre-left and is losing votes to Grillo, whose rants against politicians have been strengthened by the graft scandals.
In terms of political charisma, Berlusconi has run rings around Monti and colorless centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani. But the latter is still expected to win next week's vote and to try to rule in coalition with the outgoing premier.
Young Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, who was one of the few fresh faces in the campaign, mounted a credible challenge to Bersani, but was seen off by the disciplined party machine.
Which all means that instead of getting revival and a new style of politician, Italians are going to see the same old faces after the vote, jostling for position in a traditional back corridor negotiation for power and perhaps incapable of the drastic economic reform that is required.
"Everything is happening at once," pensioner Lossardo Calogero, 66, told Reuters after Benedict announced his resignation. "It's dramatic. I cannot see a way out. There needs to be a revolution, but at least I am retired. I am more worried about the young. My son cannot find a job.".