Italian turnout drops in key national election

ROME (AP) - Italians are voting for a second day on Monday in a national election that will determine if they are prepared to stay the course of painful economic reform or send a message of discontinuity to the political class that led the eurozone's third-largest country to the brink of disaster by rallying around a protest party.

Polls close at 3pm local time (10.00pm on Monday, Singapore time), 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 third-largest economy in the Eurozone a good bet.

Turnout was 55 per cent when polls closed for the day on Sunday night, 7 percentage points below turnout rate in the last national election in 2008. Experts say a low turnout will hurt the mainstream parties; usually around 80 per cent of the 50 million eligible voters go to the polls.

Leading the electoral field is Mr Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who drafted liberalisation reforms under previous centre-left governments and supported tough measures pushed by incumbent Premier Mario Monti.

Mr Silvio Berlusconi, who was forced from office in Nov 2011 by the debt crisis, has sought to close the gap by promising constituents to restore an unpopular tax - a tactic that brought him within a hair's breadth of winning the 2006 election.

Mr 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.

Mr Bersani's lead in opinion polls, around 33 per cent to Mr Berlusconi's 26, before a blackout on voter sentiment 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 long-time Mr Berlusconi stronghold, playing a critical role.

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