Italy votes in election seen as key for economic recovery
Italians have been voting for a second and final day in their general election - a vote seen as crucial for efforts to tackle the country's economic problems, as well as for the eurozone.
Turnout on Sunday was 55%, a drop of 7% compared with the 2008 elections, with bad weather partly being blamed.
Pre-election polls gave Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left bloc a narrow lead over Silvio Berlusconi's alliance.
But the rise of a new protest party has made the outcome unpredictable.
The anti-establishment movement, Five Star (M5S), led by former comedian Beppe Grillo, drew huge crowds during its rallies in the final stages of the election campaign.
The election was called two months ahead of schedule, after Mr Berlusconi's party withdrew its support for Mario Monti's technocratic government.
Turn-out figures are expected to be down, and it is felt that this will, at least in part, reflect the utter contempt many Italians have developed for the political establishment.
To what extent will that mood play into the hands of the Five Star Movement, a citizens' protest group? That question obsesses the analysts now.
And the Five Star activists believe that the increasingly worried establishment is capable of anything - at one point it was advising its voters to lick their pencil to help make their cross on the ballot paper just a bit harder to remove.
Meanwhile, the anti-Mafia campaigner, Roberto Saviano, has been writing of alleged vote-buying in what he calls a "corrupt and desperate" nation.
But the mood was lightened just a little by pictures taken as Silvio Berlusconi cast his vote. A young woman working at the polling station had her hands over her eyes, obviously appalled at being in the great man's presence.
"You need to learn to smile," he said. But no smile came.
Some 47 million eligible voters had until 15:00 (14:00 GMT) to cast their ballot for both the upper and lower houses of parliament; control of both is needed in order to govern.
The first results are expected within hours of polls closing.
There is huge uncertainty as to what the results may bring, although everyone believes the outcome will be close, the BBC's Alan Johnston reports from Rome.
Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) was a consistent frontrunner in the pre-election opinion polls at nearly 35%, and is widely believed to remain in the lead.
But Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) centre-right alliance, which narrowed the PD lead in the final weeks of campaigning, may have done enough to prevent his opponents winning an overall majority, our correspondent says.
Mr Grillo's Five Star Movement was running third in the polls, with Mr Monti's party expected to gain fourth place.
The elections are taking place amid a deep recession and austerity measures, brought in by Mr Monti's government, that have caused widespread public resentment.
The vote is also being closely watched in the eurozone, with the Italian government's future commitment to austerity measures particularly under scrutiny.
Beppe Grillo has built a protest movement which demands nothing less than a political revolution in Italy”
Many Italian voters appeared pessimistic about their future government.
"We're living a tragi-comic moment, with lots of fantastical promises, and I don't think whoever wins will have a stable majority," 77-year-old Luciano Pallagroni in Rome told AFP news agency.
Another voter, Alberto, said: "It seems clear for me. I don't trust in politics any more."Searing contempt
Recent polls have suggested the centre-left PD could easily win the lower house of parliament, but may fail to gain a majority in the Senate.
The Senate is elected on a region-by-region basis and much may depend on the results from the heavily-populated regions around Milan and Naples, our correspondent notes.
- Voting takes place on Sunday and Monday
- Voting for both upper and lower houses
- Pits centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani against coalition led by former PM Silvio Berlusconi
- Surge in popularity of anti-establishment movement of comedian Beppe Grillo
- Key battlegrounds include Lombardy, Campania, Sicily and Veneto
Many predict Mr Bersani, a former Communist, will seek to form a coalition with Mr Monti if he fails to win an outright majority.
He has pledged to continue with Mr Monti's reforms, but suggests current European policy needs to do more to promote growth and jobs.
However, observers say that the race has been thrown wide open by the popularity of Mr Grillo's Five Star movement, whose activists show a searing contempt for Italy's traditional parties and the whole political establishment.
Silvio Berlusconi is trying to make a political comeback in this election, although he has denied suggestions he would seek to become prime minister for a fourth time.
Currently embroiled in two trials, accused of tax fraud and sex with an underage prostitute, he was confronted by topless women protesters, with Basta Berlusconi (Enough Berlusconi) scrawled on them, as he voted in Milan on Sunday.