* Outcome of Sunday’s ballot hard to predict
* Polls point to hung parliament, surprises possible
* Centre-right, 5-Star battle it out in south
* Ruling centre-left warns against populism
By Crispian Balmer
ROME, March 2 (Reuters) - Italian politicians launched into a final day of campaigning ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election, with centre-right leaders caught on a microphone worrying about the strength of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
Pollsters predict a hung parliament, with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s alliance of centre-right groups emerging as the largest bloc, while 5-Star looks certain to be the biggest single party.
The ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is paying the price of an anaemic economic recovery following the worst recession since World War Two and could end up in third place.
Party leaders have all ruled out any post-election alliances with rivals. However, Italy has a long history through decades of instability of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemate and financial markets appear little concerned by the prospect of a confused result.
A blackout on opinion polls was imposed two weeks ago, but parties have carried out their own surveys and rightist leaders revealed on Thursday that they fear the 5-Star will triumph in the south, potentially sinking any chance they had of outright victory.
“They are doing really well, really well,” Giorgia Meloni, head of Brothers of Italy, was picked up by a microphone as telling her allies at a joint rally on Thursday in a video that went viral on social media.
Raffaele Fitto, head of the tiny “We’re With Italy” party, added that support for the PD was “collapsing” in the south.
“Oh God,” said Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-Europe, anti-immigration League, adding he hoped support for the PD remained above 20 percent to help hold off 5-Star.
Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, a PD heavyweight, warned on Friday that Italy’s recovery could be derailed by the vote and cautioned against the rise of populists.
“The most serious risk would be success for populist parties,” he told newspaper Corriere della Sera. “New elections would show a certain fragility and instability, but it would be worse to go down the path of populism.”
In another aside picked up by the microphone on Thursday, Meloni told Salvini that the League would beat Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!). The bloc has agreed that whichever party wins most seats will pick their prime minister.
Berlusconi 81, has served as Italy’s prime minister four times but is barred from holding public office until 2019 because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction.
He said on Thursday that European Parliament President Antonio Tajani would be his choice to head any future government, a moderate figure who would reassure EU capitals alarmed by the anti-European rhetoric coming from Berlusconi’s allies.
“I know it’s a shame to take Antonio Tajani away from Europe, but it’s in the best interest of Italy,” Berlusconi said.
Party leaders will hold a frenetic round of television and radio interviews on Friday, while the 5-Star will hold a rally in Rome, one of only a few major events organised for this campaign which has mainly been played out on social media.
Campaigning is banned on Saturday. Voting runs from 7.00 a.m to 11.00 p.m. (0600-2200 GMT) on Sunday with exit polls released as balloting ends. However, given the likely confusing nature of the result it might take many hours before the outcome is clear.
Editing by Janet Lawrence