ROME Italians went to the polls in local elections on Sunday that will provide the first concrete test of voter resistance to Prime Minister Mario Monti's increasingly unpopular austerity policies since he came to office last year.
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.
Both the centre-right PDL and the centre-left PD are jockeying for position ahead of next year's vote but they face an increasingly skeptical electorate which has been bitterly resentful of the tax hikes imposed by the Monti government.
"When I go around, there is a great deal of disaffection, a feeling that the only response the government has to the crisis is to tax people who had nothing to do with causing it," said Giuseppe Del Pennino, coordinator of Italia Popolare, a small centre-left party in the southern town of Acerra, near Naples.
"There will be more abstention and that's mainly down to national politics," he said as campaigning wound up last week.
Opinion polls support this view, with a survey by the SWG polling institute on Friday showing more than 38 percent either undecided or ready to abstain.
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.
With national elections in France and Greece and an important state election in Germany on the same day, the vote will contribute to one of the most comprehensive snapshots of popular mood across Europe since the outbreak of the crisis.
More than 9 million Italians, or nearly 20 percent of the total electorate, are eligible to vote in the elections in around 900 towns across Italy, including important provincial centers such as Palermo, Genoa and Verona.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Sunday, with preliminary results expected after voting closes at 3 p.m. on Monday. At midday some 13 percent of voters had cast their ballot, according to partial data from the Interior Ministry, down compared with the turnout at the same time in the previous local vote.
The election of mayors and city councilors 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 been increasingly nervous about Italy.
Opinion polls show Monti's approval ratings have gone down steadily as taxes have risen and he has struggled to convince Italians of the benefits of reform policies many see as imposing pain on ordinary people while sparing the privileged.
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.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)