Some 9 million Italians headed to polls on Sunday for municipal mayor elections that are seen as a test for party support ahead of parliamentary elections.
The parliamentary polls will be held by spring 2018 at the latest.
The voters are electing mayors in more than 1,000 towns and cities, with runoffs to be held on June 25 where no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the first round.
The political climate ahead of the vote became even more febrile this week after a deal on electoral reform among the main parties broke down in parliament amid bitter recriminations.
The collapse of that accord seems to have reduced the chances of a snap election in the autumn, but the broad coalition backing Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is fragile and analysts say an early vote still cannot be ruled out.
Although Sunday’s vote is set to be one of the last before the general election, local factors mean it may not provide a clear reflection of the parties’ national standings.
Moreover, in many of the contests, the main parties have taken a back seat and chosen to camouflage themselves in broad “civic list” coalitions rather than present their own individual candidates.
The largest city at stake is Palermo, where incumbent mayor Leoluca Orlando, a veteran anti-mafia campaigner backed by Italy’s ruling Democratic Party (PD) and other center-left groups, is expected to see off his rivals from the center-right and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
Observers are closely watching the port city of Genoa which has been governed for years by mayors from the center-left but is coveted by the anti-establishment 5-Star.
The city is the home town of comic Beppe Grillo, who co-founded the populist movement in 2009.
Anti-euro and anti-immigration, 5-Star emerged as a major political force in the 2013 election when it snapped up 25.5 percent of the vote, becoming the second biggest party behind PD.
It has since built on that level of support, scoring a major victory in last year’s municipal elections when it took control of Rome and Turin, in a major setback for the PD, which is headed by former Premier Matteo Renzi.
It also took control of a string of smaller municipalities.
But the movement has been beset by divisions, with this year’s top candidate for Genoa abruptly dismissed by Grillo for not toeing the party line, prompting a fierce bout of internal squabbling that could damage its prospects.
The center-right, dominated by the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, is favorite in Verona in the northeast, while the center-left is expected to keep control of L’Aquila, capital of the central Abruzzo region.
5-Star is running neck-and-neck with the PD nationally, according to opinion polls, but it often struggles in local elections due to its loose organization and lack of high-profile candidates, and it is expected to score few successes on Sunday.
In the northern city of Parma, its first ever mayor, elected in 2012, is running as an independent after falling out with the party leadership last year, and is favorite to win against rivals from the center-right and center-left as well as 5-Star.
The current parliament’s mandate does not run out until early 2018, but Italy’s main four parties had been trying to reach a deal which would pave the way for general elections in the autumn.
But the talks collapsed in acrimony on Thursday, meaning the election is likely to take place as scheduled early next year.