Initial results are expected early today after Italians went to the polls yesterday in one of the country's most uncertain elections ever, with far-right and populist parties forecast to make major gains and Silvio Berlusconi set to play a leading role.
Tensions between far-right and anti-fascist activists marred a gloomy campaign dominated by fears about immigration and economic malaise.
"This election campaign has been pretty squalid, including from the Democratic Party, who I voted for," 24-year-old barber Mirko Canali said in Rome. He said he knew many other young people who, fed up with high youth unemployment, had decided to support the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
"They're pissed off, can't bear [PD leader Matteo] Renzi anymore and maybe they're right."
Many Italians were cynical about election promises made by the country's many squabbling parties and confused about what the outcome might be.
"We hope something will change because until now things have been very bad," said Enzo Gallo, an elderly shopper at a street market in Milan. "The middle class no longer exists, the poor are becoming poorer, the rich are becoming richer and there is no social justice."
The result could be a stalemate between the M5S, three-time former prime minister Berlusconi's right-wing coalition and the ruling center-left PD.
Under an electoral law being tried out for the first time, any grouping would need at least 40 percent of the vote to command an overall majority of seats in both chambers of parliament.
A remarkable feature of the election was the return to the limelight of 81-year-old Berlusconi, despite a political career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes.
The billionaire tycoon could not himself hold office because of a tax fraud conviction but put forward European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his prime ministerial nominee.
Berlusconi's plans, however, faced a challenge from his ambitious coalition partner, League leader Matteo Salvini, whose anti-immigration and euroskeptic rhetoric fired up the campaign.
Berlusconi and Salvini promised to expel 600,000 illegal migrants if they won - a proposal dismissed by the center-left as logistically impossible.
If no party wins an overall majority, one scenario outlined by analysts could be a grand coalition between the PD and Forza Italia - a prospect that would reassure investors but risks spreading more cynicism and emboldening populists and the far-right.
Another possibility could be a temporary government and eventually new elections.