* 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 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
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
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
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
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
"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.