Polls opened at 0700 local time (0600GMT) on the second and final day of the Italian elections on Monday (February 25), in one of the most closely watched and unpredictable votes in years.
A surge of protest votes has been fuelling concerns that the ballot may not produce a government strong enough to pull the country from its economic slump.
A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, has been closely watched by financial markets, still wary after the debt crisis that took the whole euro zone close to disaster and brought technocrat prime ministerMario Montiinto office in 2011.
For the euro zone, the stakes are high.Italyis the third largest economy in the 17-member bloc and the prospect of political stalemate could reawaken the threat of dangerous market instability.
Opinion polls give the centre-left coalition, led by the veteran former industry ministerPier Luigi Bersani, a narrow lead, but the race has been thrown open by the prospect of a huge protest vote against austerity policies imposed by Monti, and rage at a wave of corporate and political scandals.
The5-Star Movement, led byBeppe Grilloand heavily backed by a frustrated younger generation increasingly shut out of full-time jobs, has polled strongly and some believe it could challenge Silvio Berlusconi's PDL party asItaly's second largest political force.
But the 76-year-old Berlusconi has campaigned fiercely at the head of a centre-right coalition, pledging sweeping tax cuts and echoing Grillo's attacks on Monti,Germanyand the euro in a media blitz that has halved the lead of the centre-left since the start of the year.
Voting ends at 1500 local time (1400 GMT) on Monday with the first exit polls due shortly afterwards.
Presented by Adam Justice