Italy held its breath Monday as voters flocked to the polls on the second day of partial local elections that could see Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's stronghold of Milan snatched away by the left.
Left-wing candidate Giuliano Pisapia is confident of winning the mayoralty from the incumbent Letizia Moratti of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, who was left trailing in the first round of elections held earlier this month.
Moratti won just 41.6 of the vote compared to Pisapia's 48 percent in an embarrassing set-back for Berlusconi, who had actively campaigned on her behalf and declared the vote as a test of his popularity.
The premier has been struggling to assert his leadership amid several legal trials and accusations he had sex with an underage prostitute and abused his office to cover up the crime.
Italy's economic capital and Berlusconi's base, Milan has been under the control of the right for 20 years. The vote there is being seen as a bellwether for the fate of the premier's government and even of his political future.
But even though the centre-left candidate, ex-magistrate Luigi de Magistris is several points behind, he could still benefit from votes transferred from the other candidate in the first round.
Polls opened from 0500-1300 GMT for the 6.5 million Italians eligible to vote. Turnout at the ballot boxes on Sunday had been consistent with the first round in Milan, but was down by over six percent overall.
Moratti's campaign is hoping supporters who did not cast their ballots in the first round will come out in higher numbers this time round.
Shortly before the poll Berlusconi tried to play down the effect on the national government of a double loss in Milan and Naples and said he was sure of the support of his key ally, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi.
"The results will not affect the government," he told Il Giornale on Sunday.
Pisapia's surprise first round win prompted a fightback this week by the centre-right, with Berlusconi leading the charge by warning that Milan would become "an Islamic city" and "a gypsyville" under his leadership.
Pisapia has put forward plans for a new multicultural centre in the city and has called for Romas to be treated more humanely but says his words have been twisted beyond recognition by his opponents.
He has lodged a formal complaint, accusing his rival's supporters of dressing up as Roma and distributing Pisapia leaflets, as well as turning up around the city and supposedly taking measurements for a new mosque.
Source: AFP Global Edition