ROME - Italians hit by austerity and recession on Saturday prepared to take to the polls for an election that is being watched around Europe, a day after a mass rally in Rome showed rising social discontent. Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear Beppe Grillo, a comedian turned activist whose Five Star Movement could receive a massive protest vote and become Italy’s third biggest political party after the elections on Sunday and Monday. “Let’s send them all home!” the crowd chanted on Friday — a slogan of Grillo’s campaign against mainstream politicians, many of whom have been discredited recently by a series of investigations into corruption and waste of public funds. Grillo has promised to slash politicians’ salaries, increase unemployment benefits and hold a referendum on whether Italy should retain the euro. Candidates could not campaign on Saturday, and voter surveys have been off-limits for the two weeks leading up to the polls. “I am worried for my country,” centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, the favourite in the polls, told supporters at his final rally on Friday.Renowned film director Nanni Moretti also spoke at the event, saying said it was time to “liberate” Italy from the scandal-tainted media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi who has said he is confident of victory. Bersani, a cigar-chomping former communist who now espouses broadly pro-market views, has said he will continue with the budget discipline enforced by Monti to the delight of financial markets. But he will come under pressure to ease back on austerity and do more to promote growth and jobs as Italy endures its longest recession in 20 years with unemployment at a record high of 11.2 per cent.