ROME – Italians voted Sunday in a general election that could return conservative billionaire Silvio Berlusconi to power amid a widespread sense of national decline and an economic downturn.
Berlusconi, 71 and vying for his third term as premier, has blamed the outgoing center-left government for the country's troubles. Despite a questionable record during his five-year term between 2001-2006, he says he is the man to put Italy back on its feet.
His main opponent, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, is almost 20 years younger and has promised deep reform and an ideology-free approach to tackle the country's problems.
There are 945 parliamentary seats that are also up for grabs in the vote, which was scheduled to last until 10 p.m. Sunday and then resume Monday morning until early afternoon.
"I'm voting for Berlusconi because he's the one who can make it. If he doesn't, we're ruined," said 65-year-old Roberta Marini after casting her ballot in downtown Rome. "Berlusconi is strong, aggressive and he gives all he's got."
Fellow voter Andrea Saba disagreed.
"Bearing five more years of Berlusconi would be an outrage," said the 75-year-old retired economics professor, who also cast his ballot in the capital. "Berlusconi is surrounded by incompetents, and he's a bit out of sorts."
Italy has faced a number of hardships that have left voters disillusioned with political leaders who have failed to solve the country's mounting problems.
A garbage collection crisis has left tons of trash piling up on the streets of Naples. Efforts to sell the loss-making national carrier Alitalia are up in the air after a proposal by Air France-KLM met with the opposition of unions and conservative politicians. And a buffalo mozzarella health scare has hurt exports and hit one of the country's culinary treasures.
Italy's economy also has performed worse than the rest of the euro zone for the past decade. The International Monetary Fund predicts Italy's economy will grow by just 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average growth for the 15-country euro area. While the cost of living has grown, Italian salaries have not.
Berlusconi entered the race as the front-runner, capitalizing on the unpopularity of the outgoing government of Romano Prodi, whose early collapse forced the vote three years ahead of schedule.
But Veltroni has appeared to narrow the gap, according to polls released before a pre-election ban on publishing polls took effect. Analysts say a crucial factor might be undecided voters — a significant chunk in the electorate of 47 million.
Prodi, whose last government lasted only 20 months, is not running.