Italians head to the polls for a second day on Monday to cast their ballot on who will take over the reigns of the eurozone's most indebted economy.
Watched closely by the markets, the contest has seen mainstream parties undermined by a powerful anti-establishment force which analysts fear could lead to political deadlock.
The pro-European, centre-left Democratic Party is the favourite to win the election when polls close at 3pm today. But predictions of a huge protest vote for the comedian and anti-establishment figure Beppe Grillo have raised the prospect of an unstable government and the return to the financial chaos last seen when the Silvio Berlusconi's administration collapsed in November 2011.
“Forming a government with a stable parliamentary alliance may prove tricky,” said Eoin Ryan, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. He said Mr Grillo's popularity was “raising chances of an indecisive election result and post-vote political instability”.
Much of the political establishment - in Berlin and Brussels as well as Rome - is pinning its hopes on a Democratic Party government with support in the Senate from outgoing Eurocrat premier Mario Monti.
Mr Grillo's Five Star Movement, made up of activists with no parliamentary experience, wants a referendum on Euro membership as well as an end to austerity measures. But it is ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, the populist figure apparently eclipsed by Mr Grillo, who some analysts say is the market's main bogeyman.
Pollster Renato Mannheimer said foreign banks deliberating over Italian bonds were “worried mostly about the return of Berlusconi”.
On Sunday, as if blizzards and the threat of Mr Grillo ransacking Parliament were not enough excitement, three topless feminists from the Ukrainian protest group Femen ambushed 76-year-old Berlusconi, the leader of the centre-right, as he arrived at a Milan polling station to vote.
The young women had the slogan “Basta Berlusconi” (“Enough of Berlusconi”) scrawled on their backs. They were quickly dragged off by police officers.
The most recent official poll - taken two weeks ago - suggested the protesters' and investors' wishes would be granted. The centre-left Democratic Party, headed by Pierluigi Bersani, led with 33 percent of the vote, against 28 percent for Mr Berlusconi's coalition with the populist Northern League. Mr Grillo's Five Star movement was in a surprise third place, with 17 percent support, while Mr Monti's centrist coalition had 13 percent.
But an internal poll carried out by the Democratic Party in the days up to the election suggest a surge by Beppe Grillo may make his Five Star Movement the second biggest party, ahead of Mr Berlusconi's PDL (People of Liberty party).
Despite the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the election, many Italians voting yesterday held out little hope for change.
Paola Landri, 36, said: “After a month in parliament even Grillo's people may have their hands in the till. It's the system that needs changing. But we haven't got enough good people to do it. So it's a vicious circle.” - The Independent