ROME (AP)--Italians began voting Sunday in parliamentary elections pitting media mogul and conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi against center-left leader Romano Prodi in what has been a close race.
Skies were sunny as polls opened for the first of two days of voting. The first exit poll results are expected after polling stations close at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) Monday, with first partial results hours later.
Opinion polls were banned in the 15 days before election day, but most soundings of voter sentiment before the ban showed Prodi's coalition with a slight edge.
Defeat for Berlusconi, who led Italy's longest-serving government since World War II, would deprive U.S. President George W. Bush of a strong ally who sent troops to Iraq.
Prodi, a former premier who defeated Berlusconi in 1996 for the premiership, is a former head of the European Union's executive body. He has pledged to tone down Berlusconi's strong relationship with Washington and strengthen the role of the 25-nation E.U.
The final days of campaigning were marked by a succession of nasty exchanges between the candidates.
In a speech Tuesday to small business owners, Berlusconi shocked the nation by referring to those intending to vote for the opposition as "coglioni" - a vulgarism that roughly translates as morons.
The candidates' last televised debate Monday was remarkable for the insults the two tossed at each other.
Both men lead fractious coalitions of parties. Prodi's Union ranges from pro-Vatican moderates to Communists. Berlusconi's House of Freedoms coalition includes Christian Democrats, former neo-fascists and an anti-immigrant party.
Berlusconi, a media tycoon, was elected in 2001 on high hopes that his knack for making money would translate into a business boom for Italy - but economic growth has ground to a halt and even business leaders are turning their backs on him.
Income tax rates for many in the middle class are near 40%, but citizens see little return on their tax euros. The country also has experienced a decline in competitiveness and has a high public debt.
Berlusconi's foreign policy has not been popular. The premier defied domestic opposition when he sent some 3,000 troops to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help rebuild the country.
The contingent now numbers around 2,600 after units started pulling out last year, and Berlusconi's government has pledged to withdraw the troops by the end of 2006, replacing them with a civilian force.
Prodi had made virtually the same proposal, and in the final debate he promised withdrawal "as soon as possible."
Berlusconi's critics accuse him of passing a raft of laws tailor-made to protect his business interests. The premier has also been kept busy fending off prosecution over alleged corruption and conflict of interest in his media empire, which includes Italy's largest private television network, and his publishing, insurance and real-estate interests.
Both leaders have tried to draw in the undecided, estimated to be a double-digit percentage and a slice of the electorate that will be crucial in determining what is expected to be a close election.
Some 47 million Italians are eligible to vote in the balloting. Of the 2.6 million Italians living abroad who voted for the first time in a national election, 1.1 million, or 42% had voted. Their marked ballots had to arrive at consulates on Thursday, and their votes will be counted with all the rest after polls close on Monday.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires