Topless Protest At Berlusconi As Italy Votes

Robert Nisbet, Europe Correspondent

Three topless feminists lunged at Silvio Berlusconi as he arrived at a polling station in Milan to vote in Italy's general election.

Polls opened in the country amid concern the outcome could lead to political gridlock in Europe's fourth largest economy.

As voters queued at a polling station at a Milan school, the three half-naked women, who had the slogan "Basta Berlusconi" ("Enough With Berlusconi") scrawled on their backs, broke through a crowd of journalists.

The topless trio then jumped over some tables towards the former leader, but they failed to reach him.

They were quickly detained by police and dragged away screaming.

Italian news reports said the three were members of the women's rights protest group Femen. 

Mr Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister, is leading a centre-right coalition in the election and polls indicate he will come second to the centre-left.

Italy is in its worst recession in two decades. Unemployment is above 11% and rising, while the public debt mountain as a proportion of GDP is second only to Greece in the eurozone.

The current administration, led by the unelected economist Mario Monti, has prescribed a tough medicine of economic reform, budget cuts and tax increases.

While the austerity programme was welcomed by those trying to stabilise the single currency, it has been deeply unpopular among Italian voters.

Support for his small coalition of centrist parties has foundered, while those who have taken an EU-critical, anti-austerity position have seen their popularity increase.

Voter intention surveys are banned in the days leading up to elections in Italy, but pollsters use elaborate ruses to disguise their findings. The most common features the political parties as competitors in fictional horse races.

They suggest the unconventional anti-corruption Five Star Movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, could take up to 20% of the vote, which political analysts believe could throw parliament into chaos.

Franco Pavoncello, the President of Rome's John Cabot University, told Sky News: "Mr Grillo will not even be a member of parliament (because of a conviction for vehicular manslaughter in 1981).

"So the question is what's going to happen when you have 70 young and inexperienced people as MPs without the leader who got them elected?

"I think we might be in for some very interesting phenomena after the election."

Italy's European neighbours, including Britain, don't want interesting phenomena. They want calm in the crisis-wracked eurozone.

Because of the quirks of the Italian electoral system, it seems unlikely the two-day poll will deliver a clear working majority for any single party.

While the centre-left's Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party, is likely to emerge as Prime Minister - thanks to a bonus of 55 seats awarded to the biggest vote-getter in the lower Chamber of Deputies - he may find it hard to win over the Senate.

A law brought in by Mr Berlusconi apportions extra seats in the upper house to the most populous regions.

That favours the media magnate's centre-right PdL party, which is polling well in areas such as Sicily and Lombardy.

Mr Berlusconi, who was considered a spent force after his resignation in November 2011, may find he holds the balance of power as any law needs the approval of both houses.

Giovanni Ragusa, an economist from LUISS University in Rome, says a political stalemate could be disastrous for Italy and for Europe.

"When Italian voters realise there's not going to be a strong government able to pass new laws and that the tax increases they have been subjected to for the past few years are not going to be temporary, then the discontent is going to spill over onto the streets," he warned.

Any political problems in Italy could affect the ability of the EU to bring about reforms which would ensure the stability of the euro, which the British Government insists is necessary to help the struggling UK economy.

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