ROME (AFP) - Italians go to the polls on Sunday (June 5) for municipal elections that represent tests for both Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the country's divided right-wing, with both fearing a chastening defeat in Rome.
More than 1,300 municipal councils will be elected in a two-round ballot to be completed on June 19.
The primary focus 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 Mr Ignazio Marino, a member of Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD), was forced to quit over an expenses scandal.
That episode and a much bigger, unrelated scandal over organised crime's infiltration of City Hall have bolstered Five Star's Ms Virginia Raggi.
She goes into Sunday's vote with polls indicating she could secure around 30 per cent of first round votes. The PD's Roberto Giachetti was trailing on around 24 per cent.
Losing Rome would not augur well for Mr 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 principal opposition in the run-up to national elections due by June 2018 at the latest.
Perhaps concerned about the impact of losing both Rome and Milan for the momentum of his reform programme, 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 leadership is being played out in the capital.
Ms Giorgia Meloni, a candidate put up by one of several grouplets 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 Mr Berlusconi has backed another candidate, Mr Alfio Marchini, having told the pregnant Ms Meloni that the role of mayor was not compatible with motherhood.
Some 16,000 polling stations open at 7am and close at 11 pm.
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.