Italians voted Sunday in local elections seen as a test of the country's political mood nearly six months after Prime Minister Mario Monti's government took over and imposed a biting austerity programme.
Some 9.5 million Italians are voting for mayors and council members in 1,024 towns, including several key urban centres such as Genoa, Palermo, Parma and Verona. The voting continues for a second day on Monday.
The vote is the first since the fall of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in November and the ensuing adoption of austerity measures, as well as the resignation of Umberto Bossi as head of Italy's Northern League amid corruption allegations.
It also brings to the spotlight several pressing local issues, including local taxes at a time when many municipalities face financial trouble and the country is in the midst of deep austerity cuts.
The run-up to the polls has been marked by rising discontent that has made gruesome headlines, with a hostage drama at a local tax office in northern Italy last week and a string of suicides brought on by the crisis, including builder Giuseppe Campaniello's self-immolation on March 28.
Newspapers across the political spectrum alluded to the violent backdrop of the elections.
"Taxes still kill," said Il Giornale, a right-leaning paper that for years supported Berlusconi's policies.
"Voting with a gun to the head," said the left-leaning Il Fatto Quotidiano.
Voter turnout and the success of the small anti-establishment parties that have emerged on both the left and the right will be closely watched political barometers.
One such party includes the Five Star Movement founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, which staged a series of obscenity-peppered rallies in the run-up to the vote.
The vote is a test for the traditional political parties and particularly the Northern League, Berlusconi's former ally in government, which had made railing against corruption in Rome one of its rallying cries, along with Euroscepticism and anti-immigration.
The showing of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) will also be closely watched.
Despite the reservations of many of its members, the PD has supported Monti through a regime of budget cuts that have meant major sacrifices for working-class Italians, but faces growing divisions over labour reform.
The party's secretary general Pier Luigi Bersani said Sunday he hoped the elections would pour "pure, fresh water" on Italian politics.
"I expect these elections to reveal an uneasiness, because there is anger in the air, but at the same time a very strong sign of change and confidence," he said.
Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party also faces a major test after its leader's fall from grace, as does the fragmented centre, trying to find political cohesion amid the turmoil.
A runoff vote will be held on May 20 and 21 for any races that go into a second round after Sunday and Monday's polls.© ANP/AFP