ROME (AP) _ A center-left coalition bidding for its first ever victory in national elections was projected to win control of the Senate Sunday in a vote Italians hope will lead them out of political paralysis.

The coalition is dominated by the former Communists, who have been out of the power loop since the Cold War years.

After polls closed, the center-left was projected to win 43.5 percent in the Senate vote, to 40.4 percent for the center-right, according to estimates by the Abacus research company for television networks. The projection had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent to 3 percent.

Projections from the Chamber of Deputies were not immediately available.

If the numbers hold, and the center-left coalition can form a government, they have designated a former Christian Democrat economist, Romano Prodi, as their premier.

They faced a center-right alliance lead by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who was seeking to overcome corruption and conflict of interest charges to return to the office he held in 1994.

Sunday's vote was the third national election in four years, and it produced a campaign marked by mud-slinging and insults.

A far-reaching corruption scandal that unfolded over the past four years brought down Italy's postwar political order and led to calls for radical reforms. But attempts to reach agreements ended in political deadlock, forcing the election.

The question prior to the election was whether Italy's 49 million voters would produce a solid majority able to form a strong and durable government _ Italy's 55th since World War II ended. The two main political blocs were ranked dead-even in the final polls.

The next government will have to confront a budget deficit now running at $75 billion and public debt at more than 120 percent of gross domestic product.

The Olive Tree alliance, as the center-left is called, says it is committed to a free market but does not want to dismantle the welfare state, which it claims is the aim of the center-right.

Berlusconi denies that, saying his coalition only wants to cut waste and make it more efficient.

If neither side receives enough support to form a government, politicians say they will try once again to rewrite election laws to ensure a clear outcome the next time around.

Up for grabs were all 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and all 315 in the Senate.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 10 p.m. (4 p.m. EDT). Final results weren't expected until Monday morning.

Although there have been signs of voter apathy, Italian elections traditionally produce large turnouts. Ten hours after the polls opened, 48.9 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots.

The only incident reported was an attack during the night by vandals on an office of Berlusconi's party in a fashionable Rome suburb. The office was closed and no one was injured.

The corruption scandal has not only rocked much of Italy's political establishment, it also has led to changes in the electoral system. Prior to 1994, all seats were doled out to parties based on their proportion of the total vote, which allows numerous small parties to keep footholds in the Parliament.

Under the changed system, majority vote in single-member districts determines all Senate seats and three-fourths of the Chamber of Deputies. The remaining deputies will be still be allotted based on the old method.

The election is especially important to Berlusconi, the media tycoon and multimillionaire who founded his own party and won the last election in 1994 against all expectations. He served as premier for eight months before a coalition ally withdrew support, forcing him to resign.

Berlusconi, on trial for corruption charges he claims are part of a political vendetta, has hinted he will walk away from politics if he loses this time.

His coalition is made up of his Forza Italy (Let's Go Italy) party; the National Alliance, descended from Italy's neo-fascist movement; and a handful of conservative-leaning former Christian Democrats.

The rival center-left coalition is dominated by the former Communists and includes another slice of the ex-Christian Democratic Party and the hard-line Communist Refoundation.

Though coming close, the once-powerful Communist Party never won a national election.

Premier Lamberto Dini, who succeeded Berlusconi as head of a Cabinet of non-politically aligned technocrats, was running for the Chamber of Deputies with the center-left.