Austerity-hit Italy votes in crucial euro zone election

ROME (AFP) - Italians fed up with austerity voted on Sunday in the country's most important election in a generation, as Europe held its breath for signs of fresh instability in the euro zone's third-largest economy.

Millions turned out to vote for the first time since billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi was ousted in 2011 during a wave of financial market panic and was replaced by former Eurocrat Mario Monti.

There was a commotion as Mr Berlusconi came to vote in Milan when three topless feminists hurled themselves towards him with "Basta Berlusconi" ("Enough With Berlusconi") scrawled on their backs.

Centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani is the most likely winner, but analysts say he may fall short of a majority and need to weave together a coalition that could prove unsteady.

Mr Bersani has promised to stick to Mr Monti's budget discipline but says he will do more for growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years and unemployment hits record highs.

"I am voting for the Democratic Party. I don't want us to end up like Greece," said Alessandro, a 63-year-old manager, as he cast his ballot in Milan.

The scandal-tainted Mr Berlusconi, a three-time prime minister who is also a defendant in two trials for tax fraud and having sex with an underage prostitute, could come a close second.

"There's a lot of confusion in these elections. I'm voting Berlusconi. I know he has his defects but he's the best," said Ms Maria Teresa Gottardi, 65. But many Italians disagree, like voter Sara Di Gregori, a 30-year-old lawyer in Rome, who warned: "If Berlusconi returns, it would be a disaster."

The wild card in third place, according to the polls, could be a new protest party led by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo, who has channelled growing social discontent and anger against politicians.