ROME -- Will Italy stay the course with painful economic reform? Or fall back into old habits of profligacy and inertia? These are the stakes as Italians vote in a watershed parliamentary election Sunday and today that could shape the future of one of Europe's biggest economies.

Fellow European Union countries and investors are watching closely, as the decisions that Italy makes over the next several months promise to have a profound impact on whether Europe can decisively put out the flames of its financial crisis. Greece's troubles in recent years were enough to spark a series of market panics. Italy is simply too big a country for Europe, and the world, to see fail.

Leading the electoral pack is Pier Luigi Bersani, a former communist who has shown a pragmatic streak in supporting tough economic reforms spearheaded by incumbent Mario Monti. On Bersani's heels is Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul seeking an unlikely political comeback after being forced from the premiership by Italy's debt crisis. Monti, while widely credited with saving Italy from financial ruin, is trailing badly as he pays the price for the suffering caused by austerity measures.

While a man of the left, Bersani has shown himself to have a surprising amount in common with the center-right Monti -- and the two have hinted at the possibility of teaming up in a coalition. Bersani was Monti's most loyal backer in Parliament during the respected economist's tenure at the head of a technocratic government. And in ministerial posts in previous center-left governments, Bersani fought hard to free up such areas of the economy as energy, insurance and banking services.

But it's uncertain that Monti will be able muster the votes needed to give Bersani's Democratic Party a stable majority in both houses of Parliament.

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