Italian turnout drops in key national election

Associated Press
A man casts his vote for the Italian Senate, in Piacenza, Italy, Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013. Italy votes in a watershed parliamentary election Sunday and Monday that could shape the future of one of Europe's biggest economies. (AP Photo/Marco Vasini)
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ROME (AP) — Italians voted for a second day Monday in a national election that will determine whether they are prepared to stay the course of painful economic reform or send a message of discontinuity to the political class that led the country to the brink of disaster by rallying around a protest party.

Polls close at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT), ending two days of voting in an election being closely watched by Italy's eurozone partners as well as international investors trying to decide if they consider the eurozone's third-largest economy a good bet.

Interest rates on 24-month bonds rose to 1.65 percent from 1.45 percent in the previous month, a sign of softening investor sentiment even as voting continued. The Treasury failed to reach its €3 billion target, instead selling €2.82 billion worth of paper.

Turnout was 55 percent when polls closed Monday night, 7 percentage points below the turnout rate in the last national election in 2008 . Experts say a low turnout will hurt the mainstream parties. Usually around 80 percent of the 50 million eligible voters go to the polls.

Leading the electoral field is Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who drafted liberalization reforms under previous center-left governments and supported tough measures pushed by incumbent Premier Mario Monti. Silvio Berlusconi, who was forced from office in November 2011 by the debt crisis, has sought to close the gap by promising to reimburse an unpopular tax — a tactic that brought him within a hair's breadth of winning the 2006 election.

Monti, respected abroad for his measures that helped stave off Italy's debt crisis, has widely been blamed for financial suffering caused by austerity cuts and was trailing in fourth place.

The great unknown is comic-turned-political agitator Beppe Grillo, whose protest movement against the entrenched political class has gained in strength following a series of corporate scandals that only seemed to confirm the worst about Italy's establishment. If his self-styled political "tsunami," which was polling third, sweeps into Parliament with a big chunk of seats, Italy could be in store for a prolonged period of political confusion that would spook the markets.

Bersani's lead in opinion polls — around 33 percent to Berlusconi's 28 before a blackout on polls took effect 15 days ago — would give him enough to control the lower house thanks to a widely contested electoral law that awards a premium to the leading party. But it will be more difficult for him to gain control also of the Senate, which is decided by regional votes with Lombardy, the nation's wealthiest state and longtime Berlusconi stronghold, playing a critical role.

Most analysts believe Bersani would seek an alliance with center-right Monti to secure a stable government, assuming parties gathered under Monti's centrist banner gain enough votes. While left-leaning Bersani has found much in common with Monti, much of his party's base is considerably further to the left and could rebel.

Given the uncertainty of possible alliances, a clear picture of prospects for a new Italian government could take days.

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Barry reported from Milan.

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