Italy urges high turnout in critical election for euro zone

Sat Feb 23, 2013 9:29am EST

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* Campaigning banned ahead of voting on Sunday and Monday

* Comedian stages huge final rally

* Weak government could destabilise euro zone

By Catherine Hornby

ROME, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Italy pressed citizens to get out and vote in one of the most closely watched elections in years on Sunday and Monday, with financial markets on edge at the prospect of a political stalemate that could reignite the euro zone debt crisis.

A campaigning ban kicked in at midnight on Friday after leaders held final rallies. Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo stole the spotlight in Rome by attracting an estimated half a million people to hear his tirades against corrupt politicians and bankers.

The Interior Ministry urged some 47 million eligible voters to head to the polls and said it had made preparations for bad weather, including snow in some regions, to ensure that everyone could have the chance to cast their ballot.

"Elections are a fundamental moment for a democracy and we want all our citizens to experience them in the best way possible," Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said in a video posted on the ministry's website.

A survey released on Tuesday said about 28 percent of Italians had yet to decide who to vote for, or were considering not voting at all. It showed about 5 million people were likely to make up their mind in the final days.

Final polls published two weeks ago showed centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani with a five-point lead, but analysts disagree about whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can push through the economic reforms Italy needs to exit recession.

Bersani is now thought to be just a few points ahead of centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who has promised tax refunds and staged a media blitz.

The success of Grillo's "Tsunami Tour" has added to the uncertainty. Huge crowds have turned out hear him rail against corruption and austerity, underlining the extent of popular rage against traditional parties and the capacity for his 5-Star Movement to shake up the elections.

"Grillo is saying the things that all ordinary Italians are thinking, he is giving us hope," said 41-year-old Luca Pennisi, who makes pastries for a cafe in the capital where several customers were still unsure who to vote for.

"It's time to change the system, get rid of the old politicians, and stop wasting public money," he said, adding that he had watched Grillo's final rally on the Internet and would definitely vote for his grouping.

Grillo was seen winning about 16 percent in the last polls, making his movement the third-largest electoral force. Experts believe he may have built on that score, helped by a strong online campaign and a string of scandals surrounding Italy's political elite.

Other leaders ended their campaigns on a much quieter note.

Berlusconi cancelled a planned appearance at a Naples rally, blaming an eye problem. Bersani rounded off at a theatre in Rome, while outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is leading a centrist coalition, held a similar event in Florence.

The most likely - and many say the most stable and pro-reform result from the election - appears to be a governing alliance between Bersani and Monti, which would require the outgoing premier to win enough senators to boost the centre-left.

AUSTERITY EFFECT

But Monti, an economics professor and darling of the markets, is believed to be fading after a lacklustre campaign, and some experts have said he may fall below the 8-percent threshold to win Senate seats in some regions.

Whatever government emerges from the vote will have the task of pulling Italy out of its longest recession for 20 years and reviving an economy that has been stagnant for two decades.

The main danger for Italy and the euro zone is that the election produces a weak government incapable of taking firm action, which is likely to rattle investors and could ignite a new debt crisis.

Monti replaced Berlusconi in November 2011 after the media billionaire brought the euro zone's third largest economy dangerously close to a Greek-style financial meltdown while he was embroiled in a series of scandals.

The former European Commissioner launched a tough programme of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reform which helped to sharply reduce Italy's borrowing costs and restore the country's credibility abroad.

But economic austerity has fuelled anger among Italians grappling with rising unemployment and shrinking disposable incomes, encouraging many to turn to Grillo, who has tapped into a national mood of disenchantment.

Other Italians, however, remain unconvinced by what they see as populist tactics by the shaggy-haired 64-year-old, who toured Italy in a camper van, yelling himself hoarse at packed meetings.

"My vote will go to Monti for a very simple reason, I think he is the only serious proposition," said Rome resident Vito, who was on a stroll through the city on Saturday.

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