Italy has begun voting in general elections seen as crucial for the country’s effort to tackle its economic problems, as well as for the eurozone.
Estimates published before a ban on polls two weeks ago gave a lead to Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left alliance.
It was thought to be a few points ahead of the centre-right bloc led by ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
On Saturday, Silvio Berlusconi gave a TV interview – in what his opponents said was a breach of the campaigning ban.
However, Silvio Berlusconi’s office later said the interview had been granted only with the explicit agreement that it would be broadcast after polls close on Monday.
A centrist coalition led by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti is also running in the election, held on Sunday and Monday.
And opinion polls suggested there would be a strong turnout for popular comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment movement.
The election was called two months ahead of schedule, after Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for Mario Monti’s technocratic government.
The voting is taking place amid a deep recession and austerity measures that have caused widespread public resentment.
It is also being closely watched in the eurozone, with the Italian government’s future commitment to austerity measures particularly under scrutiny.
On the first voting day on Sunday, polls across Italy opened 08:00 and will close at 22:00.
The voting will resume again on Monday at 08:00 and finish at 15:00. First results are expected in the early evening.
Some 47 million eligible voters are electing both chambers of parliament – the The Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
The electoral system is based on proportional representation and party lists, with a series of thresholds to encourage parties to form coalitions.
Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has been a consistent frontrunner in the opinion polls at nearly 35%.
Pier Luigi Bersani, a former Communist, has pledged to continue with Mario Monti’s reforms, but suggests current European policy needs to do more to promote growth and jobs.
However, recent weeks have seen a narrowing of his lead over Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) alliance, who is critical of austerity measures.
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) was running third in the polls.