Italy's crucial elections appeared to be heading towards political gridlock, initial results showed, with the centre-left forces of Pier Luigi Bersani closing in on victory in the lower house of Parliament and the camp of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi gaining the upper hand in the equally powerful Senate.
The upstart protest campaign of comedian turned politician Beppe Grillo was also showing a stunningly strong result in both houses of the legislature, confirming its surprise role as a force in Italian politics.
The projections on RAI, Sky, Mediaset and LA 7 television stations were the reverse of earlier predictions from telephone polls that showed the centre-left taking a strong lead in both houses of Parliament.
The change in predictions had an immediate impact on markets, which rose earlier on hopes of a stable and strong government led by the centre-left.
Such a government, probably backed by outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, is seen as the best guarantee of measures to combat a deep recession and stagnant growth.
Berlusconi's aim is to win enough power in the Senate to paralyse a government led by the centre-left.
The earlier telephone polls on Sky and Rai television channels had showed the centre-left of Bersani ahead in both the Senate and lower house. But early projections on RAI television and based on a small sample of the 47 million electorate showed Berlusconi's coalition, which includes the federalist Northern League, ahead of Bersani in the Senate by just over 2 percentage points. The projections placed Grillo third.
Italy's electoral laws guarantee a strong majority in the lower house to the party or coalition that wins the biggest share of the national vote.
However the Senate, elected on a region-by-region basis, is more complicated and the result will turn on four key battleground regions. Projections from LA 7 showed Berlusconi winning in three of them: Lombardy, Sicily and Campania.
The RAI projection showed him strongly ahead in the rich northern region Lombardy.
A bitter campaign, fought largely over economic issues, has been closely watched by financial markets, anxious about the risk of a return of the kind of debt crisis that took the euro zone close to disaster and brought Monti to office, replacing the scandal-plagued Berlusconi in 2011.
A disappointing turnout, however, reflected widespread frustration among voters fed up with austerity measures and a grinding recession.
Politics professor Roberto D'Alimonte said these elections are the most important in Italy since the early 1990s - when a series of corruption scandals brought down a political order that was dominated by the Christian Democrats.
"In 1994, the consequences were only about us. That is not the case anymore; now they are about Europe and its future," D'Alimonte said.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse