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Italians vote in key test for PM and right

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Rome (AFP)

Italians went to the polls Sunday for municipal elections seen as a test for both Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the country's divided right, with both fearing a chastening defeat in Rome.

More than 13 million people are eligible to vote for members of 1,300 municipal councils in a two-round ballot to be completed on June 19.

Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT and will close at 2100 GMT.

The focus is on the major cities of Bologna, Milan, Naples, Turin and especially the capital, where the populist anti-establishment Five Star is heading the race for the mayor's seat.

Rome has been without an elected leader since last October, when Ignazio Marino, a member of Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD), was forced to quit over an expenses scandal.

The city is saddled with a debt of more than 13 billion euros ($15 billion), which is twice its annual budget.

The expenses scandal and a much bigger unrelated scandal over organised crime's infiltration of Rome's City Hall have bolstered Five Star's Virginia Raggi.

The 37-year-old went into Sunday's vote with polls indicating she could secure around 30 percent of first-round votes. The PD's Roberto Giachetti was trailing on around 24 percent.

Losing Rome would not augur well for Renzi four months before he puts his position on the line in a referendum on constitutional reforms designed to end decades of gridlock in parliament.

And the setback would be even greater if, as looks possible, the PD candidate in Milan is also defeated.

Five Star meanwhile is hoping that success in Rome will give it the platform it needs to transform itself into Italy's main opposition in the run-up to national elections due by June 2018 at the latest.

Perhaps concerned about the impact on his reform programme of losing both Rome and Milan, Renzi has played down the significance of the local elections.

"The municipals are about mayors, the people whose job it is to repair the streets, not the government of the country," he said recently.

With former premier Silvio Berlusconi now a fading figure on the national stage, Italy's right is being reshaped and the battle for its leadership is being played out in the capital.

Giorgia Meloni, a candidate put up by one of several small groups that emerged from Italy's neo-fascist movement, is being backed by the anti-immigrant Northern League, whose leader Matteo Salvini wants to unite all the right behind himself.

But Berlusconi has backed another candidate Alfio Marchini, having told the pregnant Meloni that the role of mayor was not compatible with motherhood.

There are concerns the turnout could be low, with millions of Italians enjoying a long holiday weekend as a result of Republic Day falling on Thursday.

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