Italians go to the polls in crucial vote for eurozone
See also: Dangerous Times: The Rage of Beppe Grillo.
The choices facing Italy's voters are not so much a question of right vs. left but rather austerity vs. profligacy.
And the entrance of a comic turned politician into the race has thrown the election into chaos.
Fellow EU countries and investors are watching closely, as the decisions that Italy makes over the next several months promise to have a profound impact on whether Europe can decisively put out the flames of its financial crisis. Greece's troubles in recent years were enough to spark a series of market panics. With an economy almost 10 times the size of Greece's, Italy is simply too big a country for Europe, and the world, to see fail.
Leading the electoral pack is Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who has shown a pragmatic streak in supporting tough economic reforms spearheaded by incumbent Mario Monti. On Bersani's heels is Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul seeking an unlikely political comeback after being forced from the premiership by Italy's debt crisis. Monti, while widely credited with saving Italy from financial ruin, is trailing badly as he pays the price for the suffering caused by austerity measures.
Then there's the wild card: comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose protest movement against the entrenched political class has been drawing tens of thousands to rallies in piazzas across Italy. If his self-styled political "tsunami" sweeps into Parliament with a big chunk of seats, Italy could be in store for a prolonged period of political confusion that would spook the markets.
Voting was generally calm. But when Berlusconi showed up at a Milan polling place to cast his ballot, three women pulled off their sweaters to bare their breasts and display the slogan "Basta Silvio!" (Enough of Silvio) scrawled on their flesh. A cordon of police, already in place for security before the former premier's arrival, blocked Berlusconi's direct view of the women.
Police detained the women for questioning. Italian news reports said the three were members of the Femen protest group. On his way out of the polling station, Berlusconi made no direct comment on the protesters.
Some observers believe that Grillo - who might remind Americans of a Will Rogers or Pat Paulsen - will not be able to translate his large crowds into votes. He is a novelty and the thinking goes that most Italians will dismiss his candidacy and that of his new party as unserious.
But it could be those observers are underestimating the level of frustration and anger at Italian politics held by ordinary people. If enough of them cast a protest vote, Grillo may find himself head of the 3rd largest party in Italy and would be seriously consulted when it came time to form a new government.