ROME: Austerity-hit Italians take to the polls with centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani leading the fray against Silvio Berlusconi in a vote that could prove crucial for the future of the eurozone.
Three-time prime minister Berlusconi had been rising fast in the ratings to as little as 2.5 points behind Bersani in one recent poll, but might just have been stopped in his tracks by Pope Benedict XVI's shock decision to resign.
"The pope's announcement has really taken the wind out of Berlusconi's sails," political scientist Roberto D'Alimonte told AFP in an interview.
The irrepressible billionaire tycoon had relied heavily on his television performances but media attention has now been diverted firmly to the Vatican.
The final outcome of the February 24-25 vote, the composition of the new government and the direction Italy will take are still far from certain and the polls are being watched closely in European capitals and the financial markets.
The most recent polls indicate Mr Bersani's main Democratic Party and its small leftist ally SEL will easily win a majority in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, but could struggle in the upper house, the Senate.
A coalition with outgoing prime minister Mario Monti and his disparate group of centrist politicians and civil society figures could be one solution and could give Mr Monti a key role in the new government such as finance minister.
Mr Bersani has promised to stick to Mr Monti's course of budget discipline and structural reforms, but has said he will also aim for more "social equity" and will face pressure from trade unions to go easy on free-market reforms.
In a dig at the scandal-tainted Mr Berlusconi, Mr Bersani has also vowed to re-introduce laws against false accounting which was de-criminalised by the media magnate in a move widely seen as an attempt to ease his own legal woes.
A potential wild card in the election is comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who has been drawing crowds across Italy with a grassroots campaign that appeals to many disgruntled voters crippled by recent austerity measures.
Mr D'Alimonte said Mr Grillo, whose acolytes are referred to as "grillini", could garner as much as 20 per cent of the vote, which would put his Five Star Movement in third place behind Bersani and Berlusconi and ahead of Monti.
"Recently, Grillo has also been stealing votes away from Berlusconi" - not just the left, Mr D'Alimonte said, adding that this might favour Mr Bersani.