From Tim Hume
As authorities tallied official results on the final day of Italy's parliamentary elections Monday, polls suggested the center-left -- led by Pier Luigi Bersani -- was on track to defeat controversial three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
With polls closed and ballots from about 21,000 of 61,000 voting stations counted, Bersani's coalition was leading, with 31.78% of the vote in the lower house of the parliament, versus 26.79% for the conservative coalition led by Berlusconi and 26% for the antiestablishment movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo.
In the Senate, with ballots from about 41,000 of 60,000 polling stations counted, the leftists were ahead with 32.40%, versus 29.82% for the conservatives and 24% for Grillo's movement, the Interior Ministry said.
The coalition led by outgoing Premier Mario Monti was a distant fourth in both races.
Voter turnout was lower than anticipated during the first day of balloting, down from 62.55% in 2008 to 55.17% this year, the state-run ANSA news agency reported Monday.
Weather, in part, appeared to cause the lower voter turnout, the news agency said. It was snowing in portions of northern Italy and raining in the southern part of the country.
The candidates and their alliances
Polls were banned within two weeks of the elections, but the most recent ones had Bersani holding on to a slender lead over Berlusconi. Grillo was a distant third.
All the candidates, with the exception of Grillo, cast their ballots Sunday, ANSA reported.
Italy's political system encourages the forming of alliances.
For example, the Democratic Party has teamed with the more left-wing Left Ecology Freedom party. The center-left alliance is dominated by the Democratic Party, led by Bersani.
Bersani, 61, comes across as "bluff and homespun, and that's part of his appeal -- or not, depending on your point of view," said political analyst James Walston, department chair of international relations at the American University of Rome.
He described Bersani, a former communist, as a "revised apparatchik," saying the reform-minded socialist was paradoxically "far more of a free marketeer than even people on the right."
At second place in the polls is the center-right alliance led by Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, or PdL, in coalition with the right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League.
Berlusconi has given conflicting signals as to whether he is running for the premiership, indicating that he would seek the job if his coalition won, but contradicting that on other occasions.
The septuagenarian playboy billionaire nicknamed "Il Cavaliere" has been campaigning as a Milan court weighs his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, for which he was sentenced to four years in jail last year. The verdict will be delivered after the elections; however, under the Italian legal system, he is entitled to a further appeal in a higher court.
Because the case dates to July 2006, the statute of limitations will expire this year, meaning there is a good chance none of the defendants will serve any prison time.
Why are elections taking place now?
Italian parliamentarians are elected for five-year terms, with the current one due to end in April.
But in December, the PdL withdrew its support of the reformist government led by Monti, saying it was pursuing policies that "were too German-centric."
Monti subsequently resigned, and the parliament was dissolved.
-- CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.