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Berlusconi seeks power as Italy votes

  • Story Highlights
  • Italy goes to the polls for elections that could see the return of former PM Berlusconi
  • Up against former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni from center-left Democratic Party
  • Voting began on Sunday, resumes Monday until early afternoon
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ROME, Italy (CNN) -- Italians began voting Sunday in snap general elections that could bring the return of a familiar face in Italian politics: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Balloting was set to continue through Monday to determine who will lead Italy's 63rd government since the end of World War II.

The charismatic billionaire, representing the center right, is running against former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni of the center left.

They are the main contenders among 32 candidates vying to replace Romano Prodi, who stepped down as prime minister in January.

Part of the reason for the continual collapses of Italy's governments is the country's arcane electoral laws, which give the many small parties in parliament a disproportionate share of power and influence.

Berlusconi, of the People of Freedom Party, has twice been prime minister -- from May 1994 to January 1995, and again from April 2005 to May 2006 -- and he narrowly lost a re-election bid to Prodi.

Opinion polls give him a good chance of winning his third term in 14 years.

"Berlusconi is perceived as a flag of freedom, and that is enough to make him a symbol, a very efficient symbol of something different from traditional politics," newspaper editor Giuliano Ferrara told CNN in February.

The 71-year-old Berlusconi is not considered too old for the job, nor has his health been an issue, despite the fact that he has had bypass surgery since leaving office.

Plastic surgery, a hair transplant, and a year-round tan have turned the media magnate into the eternal youngster of Italian politics.

But in these elections, Berlusconi's challenger is far younger -- Veltroni is 52.

Veltroni, of the Democratic Party, is a novelist, former columnist, and lifelong politician who likens his campaign to that of U.S. presidential hopeful Barack Obama. His party mantra is even the same as the American Democrat: "Yes we can."

Veltroni was mayor of Rome from June 2001 until last month, when he stepped down to run for prime minister.

Though Berlusconi and Veltroni are on opposite sides of the political ring, they espouse such similar policies that Newsweek magazine this month dubbed them "Veltrusconi" and published an eerie photo montage combining their faces.

Both candidates support big tax cuts and generous spending programs, policies that don't bode well for Italy's stagnant economy.

"Neither of the two big parties is ready to really bite the bullet and make very painful decisions," said James Walton, an election analyst.

Prodi's government, which had been in office for a relatively long 20 months, fell when a small centrist Catholic party withdrew from his coalition, causing Prodi to lose his slim Senate majority.

After he resigned, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano tried but failed to form an interim government that would have addressed the problem of the electoral laws. Napolitano said changing the laws is necessary to bring stability to Italy's system of government.

Without those changes, the next prime minister is still susceptible to the whims of small parties in Parliament and won't be able to govern easily, analysts say.

Elections are also being held for all seats in Parliament, with 36 parties in the race. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Hada Messia in Rome contributed to this report.

All About Silvio BerlusconiWalter VeltroniVladimir PutinRomano ProdiItalyParliament of Italy

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