Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi's party lost a key local election in traditionally conservative Sicily. Center-left candidate Rosario Crocetta looks set to become governor. The swing precedes national polls in April.
With 75 percent of Sunday's vote counted by late Monday, the Democratic Party's Rosario Crocetta (pictured), an openly gay former anti-Mafia mayor who lives under police protection, was leading on 31 percent. Trailing him on 25 percent was Nello Musumeci, the candidate of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party (PDL).
"Today is more than an election result: It is a date with history," said Crocetta. "It's the first time that a candidate for the left has been elected regional governor; it's the first time an anti-mafia candidate has won."
Sicily went to the polls early after Sicilian governor Raffaele Lombardo resigned over mafia allegations and a public-finance crisis. Sicily almost went bankrupt during the eurozone crisis. Nearly 40 percent of its young people are unemployed.
Gains for anti-establishment grouping
The anti-establishment Five Star Movement appears to have garnered protest votes with its candidate Giancarlo Cancelleri, a surveyor who has never held office, coming third on nearly 19 percent.
The Five State Movement, which was founded by the comic Beppe Grillo, advocates a "participatory democracy" and has vowed to tackle bureaucratic waste and privileges.
Turnout at voting stations was low on Sunday, with just over 47 percent of the 4.5 million Sicilians called to the ballots actually casting their votes, down from 66 percent in 2008
Divisions and scandals
If confirmed in the final count, the defeat would come as another blow to Berlusconi's PDL, which has been struggling with internal divisions and corruption scandals.
The political situation was aggravated over the weekend when Berlusconi threatened to withdraw the PDL's backing for the technocrat government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, a non-partisan economist who took over in November at the request of Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano.
The billionaire Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud on Friday. He had announced last week that he would not run for premier in the 2013 election, but later vowed to remain in politics to reform the justice system that had found him guilty.
mkg, ccp/ipj (AFP, Reuters, dpa)