Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 14:06 UK

Voting ends in Italian election

Silvio Berlusconi (left, AP photo) and Walter Veltroni (Getty photo) - both on 10/4/2008
Both candidates promised to revitalise Italy's economy

Polling has finished in a two-day election to choose Italy's new parliament and prime minister.

The main contenders for the premiership are centre-right former PM Silvio Berlusconi and the centre-left former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni.

With the economy a key election issue, both men had promised modest tax cuts and reductions in bureaucracy.

Exit polls are expected shortly, but official results may not be issued until Tuesday.

Correspondents had been expecting a close race, with the winner possibly having to broker a deal with smaller parties.

The general election was held three years ahead of schedule, following the collapse of a left-of-centre coalition government led by Romano Prodi. The new government will be Italy's 62nd since World War II.

The counting is being scrutinised by party observers from both right and left, to forestall any accusations of cheating.

Camera-phones banned

By the close of polling on Sunday - the first day of voting - 62.5% of voters had cast their ballots, four percentage points lower than at the same stage in the 2006 election.

An Italian voter cast his ballot at a polling station in Bologna (13 April 2008)
The counting is to be scrutinised by party observers from both sides

Some three million Italians living abroad also took part.

Some 158 different parties contested the regional and national polls, including Mr Berlusconi's new conservative People of Freedom (PDL) and Mr Veltroni's recently formed Democratic Party (PD).

Mr Berlusconi has served two terms as prime minister, last resigning in May 2006.

The 71-year-old billionaire, believed to be Italy's richest man, is the head of a business empire that spans media, advertising, insurance, food and construction and includes the successful football club AC Milan.

I voted this morning and I sincerely hope that whoever wins will have the majority in the house and in the senate.
Ann, Italy

Mr Veltroni, 52, is a former communist who served for seven years as mayor of Rome, before taking over the leadership of the centre-left coalition led by Mr Prodi, after his government collapsed in January.

New regulations prevented anyone from taking mobile telephones equipped with cameras into the polling booths to record which way they voted, as "vote buying" has been detected at previous elections.

Economic ills

Although Italy faces a massive public debt, both candidates promised tax cuts and handouts to voters, says the BBC's Christian Fraser in Rome.

Voters' views from Palermo

Italy's economy has been suffering from low productivity and a strong euro, and analysts say young people, pensioners and low-income workers are feeling the pressure.

One voter in the southern town of Sorrento, Ciro d'Esposito, publicly tore up and ate his ballot paper in an unusual form of personal protest at what he described as his disgust at the failure of politicians to deal with his country's economic ills.

"What future are we preparing for our children? Who should I have voted for? Something has to change, we're heading towards ruin," the 41-year-old businessman told the Ansa news agency.

Mr d'Esposito was briefly detained by police, as it is an offence to destroy ballot papers.

Correspondents say that whichever candidate is declared the winner, both know a period of painful political and economic reforms is essential and unavoidable.

video and audio news
Main contenders for the Italian premiership cast their vote

Profile: Walter Veltroni
10 Apr 08 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
08 Apr 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
06 Feb 08 |  Country profiles
Berlusconi spurns coalition bid
04 Feb 08 |  Europe

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