* 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 (Reuters) - 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.