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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ballot-Weary Italians Set for Weekend Vote

ROME -- The campaign for Italy's general election drew to a close Friday with the specter of mass abstention by a jaded electorate hanging over the outcome.

Six weeks of mud-slinging has done little to enamor politicians to Italians, called back to the ballot box Sunday for the third time in four turbulent years.

A final televised debate between the two candidates to leed Italy's 55th post-war government, media mogul Silvio Berlusconi on the center-right and economist Romano Prodi on the center-left, was scheduled for Friday night.

Corriere della Sera newspaper summed up the mood in a front-page cartoon that showed a middle-aged couple -- and their pet cat and dog -- sound asleep in front of the small screen.

Italians traditionally vote in large numbers. More than 85 percent turned out at the last election in 1994 when Berlusconi shot to power just 10 weeks after entering politics. His government collapsed after only seven months and was succeeded by an unelected technocrat cabinet led by Lamberto Dini, who is now running with the center-left.

Political analysts believe turnout could be much lower on Sunday, with many of the 48 million voters unsure which way to vote and doubtful that the election will lead to change.

Opinion polls put the rival blocs neck and neck before their publication was banned on April 1, though Prodi's Olive Tree has talked up its chances of victory in the past week.

The fear of abstentions, a factor that could contribute to a stalemate between Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance and the Olive Tree and to a hung parliament, has shot through both blocs.

"A draw ... would be an outright defeat for Italy," Berlusconi, who is bidding to return to power despite a trial on corruption charges, told Il Messaggero newspaper.

Berlusconi has labored to quell speculation that his return to office in the event of victory could be blocked by his judicial woes and a conflict of interest with his businesses.

The Olive Tree, which groups the ex-communist Democratic Party of the Left, or PDS, and centrist groups, has played on Fini's fascist roots to try to scare voters away from the right.

"The right in Britain has been represented by Churchill, the right in France still means De Gaulle, in other words men who defeated fascism," PDS leader Massimo D'Alema told the Olive Tree's closing rally in Rome on Thursday night. "The right in Italy is not part of this history."

The Olive Tree has faced similar ideological attacks over the PDS's communist past and the bloc's tactical electoral pact with the Marxist party Communist Refoundation.