* Many voters express rage, pessimism
* Strong protest vote expected in two-day election
* Snow, bad weather could put off some voters
* Weak government could destabilise common currency zone
By Catherine Hornby
ROME, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Italy voted on Sunday in one of the most unpredictable elections in years, with many voters expressing rage against a discredited elite and doubt that a government will emerge strong enough to combat a severe economic crisis.
“I am pessimistic. Nothing will change,” said Luciana Li Mandri, 37, as she cast a ballot in the Sicilian capital Palermo on the first of two days of voting that continues on Monday.
“The usual thieves will be in government.”
Her gloom reflected the mood across Italy, where many voters said they thought the new administration would not last long, just the opposite of what Italy needs to combat the longest slump in 20 years, mounting unemployment and a huge public debt.
The election is being closely watched by investors whose memories are fresh of a debt crisis which forced out scandal-plagued conservative premier Silvio Berlusconi 15 months ago and saw him replaced by economics professor Mario Monti.
“I‘m not confident that the government that emerges from the election will be able to solve any of our problems,” said Attilio Bianchetti, a 55-year-old building tradesman in Milan.
Underlining his disilluion with the established parties, he voted for the 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
An iconclastic, 64-year-old Genoese, Grillo has screamed himself hoarse with obscenity-laced attacks on politicians that have channelled the anger of Italians, especially a frustrated young generation hit by record unemployment.
“He’s the only real new element in a political landscape where we’ve been seeing the same faces for too long,” said Vincenzo Cannizzaro, 48, in Palermo.
Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani a narrow lead but the result has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against Monti’s painful austerity measures and rage at a wave of corruption scandals.
A weak government could usher in new instability in the euro zone’s third largest economy and cause another crisis of confidence in the European Union’s single currency.
Television tycoon Berlusconi, showing off unrivalled media skills and displaying extraordinary energy for a man of 76, has increased uncertainty over the past couple of months by halving the gap between his centre-right and Bersani.
“I am pessimistic. There is such political fragmentation that we will again have the problem of ungovernability” said Marta, a lawyer voting in Rome who did not want to give her family name. “I fear the new government won’t last long.”
Another Roman voter, lab technician Manila Luce, 34, said: “I am voting Grillo and I hope a lot of people do. Because it’s the only way to show how sick to the back teeth we are with the old parties.”
Voting continues until 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) and resumes on Monday at 7 a.m. Exit polls will be published shortly after polls close at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Monday. Full official results are expected by early Tuesday.
Snow in the north was expected to last into Monday and could discourage some of the 47 million eligible voters. Authorities said they were prepared for the weather and in the central city of Bologna roads were cleared of snow before voting started.
Several bare-breasted women protested against Berlusconi when he voted in Milan. They were bundled away by police.
The four-time premier, known for off-colour jokes and a constant target of feminists, is on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during “bunga bunga” parties at his villa.
Most experts expect a coalition between Bersani and Monti to form the next administration, but whatever government emerges will have to try to reverse years of failure to revitalise one of the most sluggish economies in the developed world.
The widespread despair over the state of the country, where a series of corruption scandals has highlighted the stark divide between a privileged political elite and millions of ordinary Italians struggling to make ends meet, has left deep scars.
“It’s our fault, Italian citizens. It’s our closed mentality. We’re just not Europeans,” said voter Li Mandri in Palermo.
“We’re all about getting favours when we study, getting a protected job when we work,” she said. “That’s the way we are and we can only be represented by people like that as well.”
Even if Bersani wins as expected, Analysts are divided over whether he will be able to form a stable majority that can force through sweeping economic reforms.
His centre-left is expected to have firm control of the lower house, thanks to rules that give a strong majority to whichever party wins the most votes nationally.
But a much closer battle will be fought for the Senate which is elected on a regional basis and which has equal law making powers to the chamber.
Berlusconi has clawed back suppport by promising to repeal Monti’s hated new housing tax, the IMU, and to refund the money. He relentlessly attacked what he called the “Germano-centric” policies of the former European Union commissioner.
Think-tank consultant Mario, 60, said on his way to vote in Bologna that Bersani’s Democratic Party was the only group serious enough to repair the economy: “They’re not perfect,” he said. “But they’ve got the organisation and the union backing that will help them push through structural reforms.”
Despite Berlusconi’s success, Grillo has tapped into the same public frustration as the conservative tycoon and pollsters say his 5-Star Movement of political novices could overtake the centre-right to take second place in the vote.
Rivals have branded Grillo a threat to democracy - a vivid image in a country ruled by fascists for two decades until World War Two. Several voters who spoke to Reuters said Grillo was not the answer because of his lack of concrete policies and the inexperience of those who will sit in parliament for 5-Star.
“Grillo is a populist and populism doesn’t work in a democracy,” said retired notary Pasquale Lebanon, 76, as he voted for Bersani’s Democratic Party in Milan.
“I‘m very worried. There seems to be no way out from a political point of view, or for being able to govern,” said Calogero Giallanza, a 45-year-old musician in Rome as he also voted for Bersani.
“There’s bound to be a mess in the Senate because, as far as I can see the 5-Star Movement is unstoppable.”