Rome: Italians voted on Sunday in a primary for a center-left candidate to run in spring general elections that will in large part determine how Italy`s tries to fix its troubled finances and emerge from a grinding recession.
If none of the five candidates wins a majority, a runoff will be held next Sunday.
The race is expected to come down to a faceoff between Pier Luigi Bersani, the 61-year-old leader of the main center-left Democratic Party, and challenger Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence.
While the candidates have been gamely campaigning and debating one another ahead of the primary, today`s vote has largely been overshadowed by speculation about the political ambitions of Italy`s current premier, Mario Monti, and whether ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi will run for office for a fourth term.
Berlusconi again threw a wrench in the primary plans of his center-right People of Freedom party by hinting yesterday that he was "thinking" about returning to politics. Berlusconi has flip-flopped several times on the question in recent weeks, complicating efforts by his party secretary, Angelino Alfano, to rally support behind a party that has been tainted by a series of political finance scandals in recent months.
"If Berlusconi really does return to the field as he has said, I have to ask myself what`s the point of having a primary, which only has sense if he doesn`t run," Italian news reports quoted Alfano as saying yesterday. "Otherwise we have to rethink everything."
Berlusconi resigned as premier last year amid personal sex scandals and legal woes, unable to convince international markets that he could balance Italy`s budget and pass necessary financial reforms to save Italy from a Greek-style debt crisis.
Italy`s president tapped Monti, a respected economist and former European commissioner, to head a government of technocrats to guide Italy until general elections.
Monti`s government has imposed a painful austerity programme and pushed through structural reforms that together have succeeded in bringing down Italy`s borrowing costs.
While ordinary Italians have chafed at the reforms, the positive market reaction to Monti`s stewardship has fuelled support for a second term, particularly among centrist politicians and some of Italy`s business elite.
Monti has ruled out running for premier but has left the door open for a second term if no party wins a clear majority and he is tapped to head another government.
President Giorgio Napolitano made clear last week that Monti couldn`t run for office heading a party ticket, since he`s currently a senator-for-life.