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Austerity-Hit Italians Vote in Key National Election

A man exits a polling booth after casting his ballot in Milan, Italy, February 24, 2013.
Italians went to the polls Sunday in one of the country's most important elections in years. Voters angry over a prolonged economic slump and a discredited political elite cast ballots with many looking to anti-establishment parties promising radical change.

Fellow European Union members are keeping a close eye on Italy's two-day national election that could shape the future of the economic bloc's third-largest economy.

Public opinion polls indicate the center-left Democratic Party and its leader Pier Luigi Bersani hold a slim lead, but will likely fall short of a legislative majority needed to push through economic reforms without a coalition.

A strong showing by increasingly visible populist candidates, such as comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, could leave Italy without a clear winner in the parliamentary elections, leading to a political battle to come up with a ruling coalition.

A large protest vote could also stall reforms undertaken by current Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is trailing badly in the polls. Grillo's rallies have drawn tens of thousands in recent weeks.

Close behind Bersani is former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The billionaire is looking to make an unlikely political comeback while facing trials on charges ranging from fraud to having sex with an underage prostitute.