* Barometer for national election due next year
* Opinion polls suggest two fifths may abstain or undecided
* Preliminary results due after voting closes 1300 GMT
By James Mackenzie
ROME, May 7 Italian voters will deliver their
first verdict on Prime Minister Mario Monti on Monday in local
elections that are expected to underscore a growing resistance
to austerity policies across Europe.
Monti spoke to incoming French President Francois Hollande
and other European leaders on Sunday night to urge a greater
focus on growth after the election in France and a severe
drubbing for established parties in Greece.
Following the French and Greek results and a state election
in Germany which saw a sharp fall in support for Chancellor
Angela Merkel's party, the Italian vote will contribute to one
of the most comprehensive snapshots of popular mood across
Europe since the outbreak of the crisis.
Painful tax hikes, pension cuts and unpopular labour reforms
have fuelled mounting opposition to Monti since he came to power
last year with a mandate to save Italy from a Greek-style debt
emergency, and he has placed increasing emphasis on reforms to
promote growth in his recent public comments.
"The results of the elections in France and Greece impose
the need for reflection on European policies," Monti said in a
statement, in which he urged a "more efficient union and one
oriented towards growth".
Participation levels in the elections in more than 900 towns
in Italy were well down on previous levels after the first day
of voting at 48.98 percent, according to interior ministry
figures, in line with expectations of higher abstention levels.
Monti himself is not in the race but for the two main
parties which support his technocrat government in parliament,
the vote will also be the most significant barometer of support
ahead of national elections next year.
Opinion polls point to high abstention levels, with a survey
by the SWG polling institute on Friday showing more than 38
percent either undecided or ready to abstain. More than 9
million Italians, or nearly 20 percent of the total electorate,
are eligible to vote in the elections.
The PD was shown with a narrow overall lead over the PDL,
with the third biggest share of support going to the 5 Star
movement of Beppe Grillo, a maverick comedian who wants Italy to
leave the euro and default on its debt.
The election of mayors and city councillors will have no
direct impact on Monti's ability to press on with the structural
reforms he has promised to revive Italy's sickly economy and
control its enormous public debt.
But the growing mistrust of the main parties which many
analysts expect it to highlight could make politicians wary
about supporting unpopular new measures as the 2013 elections
approach, potentially unsettling financial markets that have
become increasingly nervous about Italy.
A series of corruption scandals in recent weeks has further
tarnished the already battered image of Italian politicians,
adding to a mood of disillusion already amply fuelled by rising
unemployment and stagnant wages.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's PDL party is still
searching for a new identity after the downfall of his
government last year and the collapse of its alliance with the
regional Northern League party.
The League itself, which rose to prominence vowing to fight
corrupt politicians in Rome, is in any case embroiled in
accusations that its leaders used taxpayers' money for luxury
cars, holidays and home repairs.
The centre-left PD is leading in most opinion polls and has
expressed confidence that it will do well in the vote but it has
struggled in the past to overcome chronic divisions and present
a solid front with potential coalition partners.
Voting began on Sunday and will close at 3 p.m. on Monday,
with preliminary results expected soon after.