Italians are voting in regional and municipal elections. The vote is being seen as a popularity test for premier Matteo Renzi - and for ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, as he attempts a political comeback.
More than 20 million Italians are eligible to vote in Sunday's local elections, in which governors will be elected in seven of the country's 20 regions, along with mayors in more than 700 municipalities.
Although the election mostly concerns smaller and medium-sized communities, voting is also taking place in the major city of Venice.
The election represents a gauge of popularity forPrime Minister Matteo Renzi's
center-left Democratic Party (PD) after nearly a year and a half in government, with the northern region of Liguria likely to be particularly hotly contested.
The elections will also be a crucial testing ground for the two parties vying for leadership of Italy's conservative camp: the anti-migrant Northern League party led by Matteo Salvini, and Forza Italia of former premier and 78-year-old media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.
The veteran politician is looking to make a comeback afterbeing acquitted on charges of paying for underage sex
and a bout of community service for tax fraud.
The polls are the first in the country since Europeans elections a year ago that the PD won with just over 40 percent of the vote.
At present, five of the seven regions up for grabs are governed by the left, while the League and Forza Italia hold one each.
In a potential embarrassment for Renzi, one PD candidate, Vincenzo De Luca, who is standing in the region of Campania surrounding the southern city of Naples, could be banned from office if even he does win because of a criminal conviction for abuse of office.
De Luca, who has Renzi's continued support, has denied all charges and is appealing the conviction.
Polls opened at 7:00 a.m (05:00 GMT) and were to close at 11:00 p.m. (21:00 GMT). Results are expected on Monday.
tj/jil (dpa, AFP)