ROME Italy's politicians on Tuesday stepped up their campaigns in the last few days before next weekend's election with the outcome deeply uncertain and up to a third of voters still up for grabs.
Opinion polls on party standings are banned in the last two weeks before the February 24-25 poll but one of Italy's leading pollsters, Renato Mannheimer, said 27.7 percent of Italians were still undecided or could abstain.
This makes the final few days of campaigning crucial for an election which has the potential to again destabilize the euro zone. Italy came close to a major debt crisis in November 2011 before Silvio Berlusconi stood down and was replaced by technocrat Mario Monti.
Mannheimer said in the Corriere della Sera daily that about 5 million people, or 10 percent of voters, would decide in the last few days.
Political leaders were all out on the dustings in a final drive for votes with Berlusconi basking in the adulation of the party faithful in a rally in Milan on Monday night and both anti-establishment leader Beppe Grillo and outgoing premier Monti campaigning on Tuesday night.
A succession of corruption scandals over recent weeks has boosted Grillo, a Genoese comedian famous for obscenity-laced rants against a widely detested political class.
His rise has increased uncertainty over the result although experts say Berlusconi may be the biggest loser from the surge by Grillo's 5-Star Movement.
Latest estimates say he could get as much as 20 percent of the vote, way ahead Monti who has failed to gain traction at the head of an uninspiring centrist coalition which is stuck below 15 percent.
Although pollsters believe the centre-left has maintained a lead of around 4-5 points over Berlusconi's centre-right since the last polls on February 8, they are widely predicting an inconclusive result in the Senate.
The most likely outcome is that centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani will be forced into the arms of Monti in order to win control of the Senate, which has equal law-making powers with the lower house.
FEAR OF GRILLO
Stefano Fassina, a top official of the Democratic Party, which dominates the center-left coalition, said on Tuesday their biggest fear was that Monti would fall short of the votes needed to ensure Senate control because of Grillo's rise and a resurgence in the last month by Berlusconi.
But he added: "Our feeling is that with Monti we will have a majority in the Senate large enough to have a stable government, this is what we understand from the latest polls."
Fassina dismissed fears that Monti would refuse to join an alliance with the center-left which includes the leftist SEL party led by the openly gay governor of the southern Puglia region, Nichi Vendola.
Although Monti, struggling to build votes as a separate centrist offering, reiterated on Tuesday that he had nothing in common with the center-left, Fassina said in the end he would have to join a coalition in the interests of stability after the election.
Fassina also tried to quash market fears of a weak government unable to pass urgent reforms to revive the euro zone's third largest economy because of internal divisions and opposition from leftist factions and trade unions.
"We are fully aware that inertia is not an option. We have no time to waste. Italy's problems are very serious and we cannot afford more recession or stagnation ... we need to deliver in terms of jobs, income, simplification," said Fassina, the PD's chief economic official.
Although international markets are so far taking the election in their stride, there have been a few jitters this week about the chances of paralysis after the vote, the opposite of what Italy needs as it struggles to make itself competitive after more than a decade of stagnant growth.
Berlusconi was greeted by adoring chants and cheers when he attended a rally at Milan's exhibition center on Monday night, assuring the party faithful that his center-right could still win the election.
He regaled an enchanted crowd of 1,500 diehard supporters for at least 90 minutes with attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Monti.
Despite a lurid scandal in which he is facing charges of having sex with an underage prostitute during "bunga bunga" parties at his Milan villa, many of the supporters were women.
"It is women who throw themselves on him," said supporter Stella D'Antonio, 42. "He is a good man, a good prime minister, a good dad, a good grandfather."
Angela Bruno, 30-year-old employee of a renewable energy company, this week demanded an apology from Berlusconi after he crudely joked about sex with her on stage at a business event and openly examined her bottom.
Bruno said her 13-year-old daughter had cried for days after seeing a video of the incident.
(Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Giles Elgood)