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Italy votes after bitter campaign

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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italians began voting Sunday in parliamentary elections following an often-volatile political campaign by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his opponent, Romano Prodi.

Each man wants his coalition to win a majority of seats in the two houses of parliament: the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies, or lower house, and the 315-seat Senate.

The final days of campaigning were marked by a succession of nasty exchanges between the candidates. (Watch the campaign get nasty -- 3:12)

Most of the political parties have aligned themselves with either Berlusconi's conservative, center-right Casa delle Liberta (House of Freedoms) coalition, or Prodi's center-left Unione (Union). Voters will be casting ballots for parties, not individuals.

About 47 million Italians are eligible to cast ballots Sunday and Monday in the first parliamentary elections in which nearly 3 million Italians living abroad were able to vote in the countries where they live.

In a March 24 poll, the last one before a two-week blackout on opinion surveys, Prodi's center-left bloc was leading by about 4 percentage points. Prodi, who defeated Berlusconi in 1996 for the premiership, once headed the European Union's executive body, the European Commission.

Both men have tried to sway undecided voters, who make up about 25 percent of the electorate.

Berlusconi, a flamboyant politician who has been in office five years, has promised voters lower taxes and higher pensions.

Prodi, who some consider almost dull, has promised to cut labor costs and reunite the country.

A major issue separating the two men is the Iraq war.

Berlusconi supported the U.S. invasion, despite overwhelming opposition at home. A Prodi premiership would likely place less emphasis on U.S. ties, and would renew tighter relations with traditional partners France and Germany.

Berlusconi, a media mogul billionaire, has far outspent his rival in his campaign. Analysts estimate he has spent close to 40 million Euros (about $50 million) -- nearly triple Prodi's spending.

But Berlusconi has also battled a long string of scandals and negative press. While he has been in power, his media company has posted large revenues, while other companies in the same sector have failed.

Since he entered politics 12 years ago, Berlusconi has faced a series of criminal charges, including bribing judges and making illegal donations to political parties. But he has never received a guilty verdict, and accuses judges of political motivations against him.

The colorful leader has made headlines throughout the election with his remarks, comparing himself to Jesus and Napoleon and branding those who would not vote for him "morons."

He also vowed to give up sex until election day.

Berlusconi said observers were needed to prevent election fraud, but Prodi said Berlusconi shouldn't worry because "he already controls everything."

Prodi, who lacks Berlusconi's celebrity status, could be helped by coming across as the opposite of the flashy leader. He has refused to appear on TV stations owned by Berlusconi, saying they are biased against him.

He says one of his top priorities in office would be changing the anti-trust laws Berlusconi approved.

Prodi, a former professor, has strung together a coalition of left and center-left groups. While Prodi has his followers, the election is also widely seen as a vote for or against Berlusconi. In the final days before the election, Italians appeared split on that question.

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