Pivotal vote: Italy's elections could have a broad impact

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Italy, the eurozone's third-largest economy after Germany and France, will hold important parliamentary elections Sunday and Monday that will turn on basically two issues.

One is the state of the economy. The second is whether Italy's notorious former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, 76, will succeed in a comeback after a year in the wilderness.

There is a third problem. Although the election is important for the future of Italy -- and the future of the eurozone and even the European Union -- the Italians are showing a kind of disinterest, almost apathy, toward it. They are obliged by law to vote, but can also spoil their ballots in protest.

The cynicism in Italy is due in large part to a stagnant economy. The gross domestic product is the same as it was in 1999. Investment is weak and foreign investment is close to nonexistent, based in part on bureaucracy and corruption. It has just experienced, since Mr. Berlusconi's departure in November 2011, a period of austerity under technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti. His political base was centrist and reform-oriented. He carried out needed changes in pensions, for example, but voters don't like austerity.

Media baron Berlusconi and his coalition of center-right parties could win the elections, based as much as anything on Italians' general dyspepsia with austerity and the flat state of the economy. That could be disastrous for Italy since the other Europeans -- particularly the Germans, whose continued willingness to help will decide the future of the euro -- find Mr. Berlusconi, with his various scandals, embarrassing and unwelcome in leadership circles.

Other parties in the contest include a center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, a former Communist and minister of economic development. Mr. Monti's pro-reform centrist parties and a new group called the Five Star Movement, which favors web-based democracy, are also in the running.

Probably the best outcome for Italy would be the victory of Mr. Bersani's group of parties, which might then return the solid, stable Mr. Monti to the prime ministership to form a coalition government. But, as is almost always the case in Italy, and particularly with an economically discontented electorate faced with a wide choice of parties, the outcome is not easy to predict.

The results, however, are important, for the economic health of Italy, Europe and the United States.

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