Silvio Berlusconi, leader of right-wing party Forza Italia, prepares to vote on March 4, 2018 at a polling station in Milan. Italians vote today in one of the country's most uncertain elections, with far-right and populist parties expected to make major gains and Silvio Berlusconi set to play a leading role. (AFP PHOTO)
Italians voted Sunday in one of the country's most uncertain elections ever, marked by a far-right and populist surge, anti-immigration tub-thumping and a leading role for comeback king Silvio Berlusconi.
The last polls carried out in mid-February suggested that a right-wing coalition led by Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) party will pick up the most votes -- roughly 37 percent.
The 81-year-old media mogul's four-party group is bolstered by two resurgent far-right forces -- the League and Brothers of Italy -- which have capitalised on fears over the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have arrived by boat from Libya since 2013.
Immigration was thrust into heart of the election campaign by the brutal killing of a teenaged recovering drug addict blamed on Nigerian immigrants.
The killing prompted a racist "revenge" gun rampage by committed fascist Luca Traini, who shot and wounded six Africans.
The right have promised to expel "600,000 illegals", with League leader Matteo Salvini, whose campaign slogans include "Italians first", repeatedly referring to "out of control immigration".
The surge in right-wing and populist parties has drawn comparisons to Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the rise of US President Donald Trump.
Former White House adviser Steve Bannon -- the man helped Trump ride a populist wave to power -- told the Italian press that a hookup between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the anti-immigration League was "the ultimate dream".
"The Italian people have gone farther, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump," said Bannon, who was in Rome on Sunday.
Berlusconi, a three-times prime minister, has returned to the limelight despite a political career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes.
Barred from holding office because of a tax fraud conviction, he has put forward European Parliament President Antonio Tajani as his prime ministerial nominee.
The billionaire tycoon was ambushed as he cast his vote in Milan by a topless woman from the Femen activist group who had "Berlusconi, you have expired" scrawled across her torso.
Berlusconi faces opposition from his ambitious coalition partner Salvini, whose anti-immigration and euro-sceptic rhetoric has fired up the campaign while spooking financial markets.
Salvini has said he should be nominated prime minister if his party comes ahead of Berlusconi's and their coalition wins a majority.
However despite the big gains enjoyed by the far right, polls indicate that the likeliest result is a stalemate between the M5S, Berlusconi's coalition and the centre-left grouping led by the ruling Democratic Party (PD).
The M5S follows the right wing on 28 percent, while the centre left are lagging behind on 27 percent and risk being relegated to the opposition.
However under a new 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.
If no party wins an overall majority, analysts say one scenario 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.
Early indications suggest that the campaign has not ignited passions, with interior ministry figures putting nationwide turnout at 19.4 percent as of 1300 GMT, above the 14.9 percent from the same point in 2013, when however the country voted over two days.
The turnout figures are in line with the constitutional reform referendum in December 2016, when overall 65.5 percent of the nation voted. A similar final total for this election would put turnout at the lowest levels for a general election since World War II.
"This election campaign has been pretty squalid, including from the Democratic Party (PD), who I voted for," 24-year-old barber Mirko Canali told AFP after casting his vote in Rome.
He said he knew many other young people who, fed up with high youth unemployment, had decided to support the M5S.
"They're pissed off, can't bear (PD leader Matteo) Renzi anymore and maybe they're right," Canali said.
The M5S is hoping to tap into that anger and grab enough votes to at least steal a march on Berlusconi's group, with whom the M5S is running neck and neck in southern Italy.
"I voted Communist and I was disappointed, I voted for PD for many years, and now I'm fed up with them," said pensioner Francesco.
"We need a really radical change, let's give these young people a chance," he added, speaking to AFP in the southern town of Pomigliano d'Arco, where M5S leader Luigi Di Maio is standing.
Polls close at 2200 GMT, with exit polls expected soon afterward, followed by early results.