Italians fed up with the governing class and a stagnant economy voted Sunday in early parliamentary elections that could return conservative billionaire Silvio Berlusconi to power.

The 71-year-old media mogul's main opponent is Walter Veltroni, 52, a center-left former mayor of Rome who has promised deep reforms and an ideology-free approach to tackling the country's problems.

There are 945 parliamentary seats up for grabs in the vote, which was scheduled to last into Sunday night and then resume this morning until early afternoon. Turnout was running at 64 percent late Sunday.

A sense of malaise hung over the elections, with Italians pessimistic that the ruling class -- dominated for years by the same key figures -- can offer much chance of change.

"I'm not sure if I am going to vote," said 47-year-old Carlo Brunetti in central Rome. "I have little faith this time."

The election comes three years early after the collapse of Romano Prodi's left-wing government. Italy has a history of political instability, with more than 60 governments since World War II.

Whoever wins will face Italy's perpetual dilemma -- improving the economy, the world's seventh largest. It has underperformed the rest of the euro zone for years and the International Monetary Fund forecasts growth of 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average growth for the 15-country euro area.

Italian governments on the left and right have failed to make the structural reforms that economists say are needed -- either for lack of political will or consensus. On the household level, Italians are pressured by rising prices though salaries are among the lowest in Western Europe.

Berlusconi, who has been prime minister twice before, led elections polls two weeks ago, but more recent polls showed Veltroni making a comeback.

LEFTISTS GAIN IN NEPAL

Nepal's former communist rebels picked up more seats Sunday as they extended their lead in early returns from elections that will shape the Himalayan nation's political future.

The Maoists secured 61 seats out of 115 in constituencies where counting was complete and were leading in most other areas where votes were still being tallied, the Election Commission said.

The centrist Nepali Congress was trailing with only 20 seats, and the United Marxist-Leninists had only 18 seats, the commission said. Final results for the 601-seat Constituent Assembly, which will govern Nepal and rewrite the constitution, are still a few weeks off.

ASSOCIATED PRESS