Voters in major Italian cities are taking part in run-off elections that are expected to test the popularity of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The vote could see Rome get its first female mayor.
Almost 9 million people are eligible to vote in the mayoral elections, which got underway at 7 a.m. (0500 UTC) local time on Sunday.
The Democratic Party (PD) of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi took a hit in the first round of voting two weeks ago, with tight races emerging in a number of key cities. Rome, Turin, Milan, Naples, Trieste and Bologna are now holding run-offs after no candidate managed to win more than 50 percent of the vote. Second-round ballots are also taking place in more than 120 other municipalities across the country.
Much of the attention, however, is on the capital, Rome, where Virginia Raggi of the Euroskeptic and anti-establishment opposition Five Star Movement (M5S) is pitted against PD candidate Roberto Giachetti.
Raggi, who has become one of the most recognized faces in Italian politics after just a few months of campaigning, took over 35 percent in the first round, pushing Renzi's candidate into second place.
Test for Renzi
If elected, Raggi, who tops opinion polls, would become the first woman to lead Rome's city council in the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline Hill. The 37-year-old campaigned on an anti-graft platform, striking a chord with voters at a time when dozens of officials and politicians are on trial for their involvement in a criminal network that cheated the city out of millions in funds.
Stakes are particularly high in the financial hub, Milan, where Renzi has backed the head of the 2015 Expo World Fair, Giuseppe Sala. Sala emerged from the first round barely a percentage point ahead of center-right rival Stefano Parisi. PD candidates also face tough challenges in Bologna and Turin.
Renzi has downplayed the significance of the municipal vote, stressing that the elections are representative of local issues, not the national government. Still, a poor performance in the polls could put his already divided party under more pressure.
Voting booths close at 11 p.m. (2100 UTC), when the results of exit polls will be announced for the main cities.
nm/jlw (Reuters, AFP, dpa)