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Italians Vote in General Election

Italians are going to the polls in general elections following a bitter campaign, which has turned the vote into a referendum on whether or not to re-elect Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Polls opened early Sunday morning and will also be open on Monday.

Italians began casting their ballots Sunday after a bitter election campaign between 69-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been in power for five years, and his center-left challenger 66-year-old Romano Prodi.

Some voters complained about how tense the campaign became and said they were looking forward to a definitive result, whatever it might be. The final television debate between the two candidates was marked by personal insults against each other.

Opinion polls were banned in the two weeks leading up to the election but before they were suspended, Mr. Berlusconi trailed by at least three percentage points behind Mr. Prodi and millions of Italians still appeared undecided.

Both leaders have tried hard to draw in the undecided, which are believed to be crucial in determining who will be the winner in this election.

Some 47 million citizens who live in Italy are eligible to vote. About 2.6 million Italians who live abroad were able to vote for the first time to elect 18 lawmakers who will be representing their interests. Forty-two percent cast their votes, which will be counted with those in Italy after the closing of polls at three in the afternoon on Monday.

As electors cast their votes Sunday, they were wondering which of the two candidates would run the country. Some expressed concern that a new voting system rushed into law in December will mean the winning coalition will enjoy a weaker majority.

Marco is in his thirties and teaches at Rome University.

"I hope there will be a winner with a decent majority," he says. I hope it will not be Mr. Berlusconi and I hope that the government will change.

Marco thinks Mr. Berlusconi has damaged the country since he's been in power.

"He governed keeping his interests high rather than the ones of the country and the economy is going very badly and above all the climate has been very, very tense," he says.

The country, he adds, is divided between supporters of one camp or the other.

Marco believes Romano Prodi is a better option because he will more careful with state finances. He says he expects an increase in taxes if Prodi wins.

Mr. Berlusconi has tried to gain voters promising to remove taxes and insisting his opponent will increase them. Many pro- Berlusconi voters acknowledge he has made mistakes but seem prepared to give him another chance. Others oppose Mr. Berlusconi, not because they believe in Prodi, but because they detest Italy's richest man.

If Mr. Prodi is elected he will have to managed a coalition made up of a variety of parties ranging from die-hard Communists to centrist Roman Catholics. After much discussion they managed to agree on a program, but the main reason that unites them is their dislike for Berlusconi and his politics.

Exit polls will be released soon after the voting finishes and initial results are expected by Monday evening.