ROME May 7 (Reuters) - Left wing and protest candidates made strong gains in Italy's local elections on Monday and the centre-right PDL party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi saw heavy losses, exit polls showed, as voters across Europe vented anger over austerity policies.
The results, following the victory of French Socialist Francois Hollande and major losses for traditional big parties in Greece on Sunday, will add to pressure for European leaders to ease measures adopted to counter the financial crisis.
Prime Minister Mario Monti is not in the race but for the two main parties which support his technocrat government in parliament, the vote in some of Italy's biggest towns and cities will be the most significant barometer of support ahead of national elections next year.
The 5 star movement led by Beppe Grillo, a maverick comic who wants Italy to leave the euro and default on its debt, made big gains, including a score of nearly 19 percent in the northern city of Parma and 15 percent in Genoa.
In Verona, Flavio Tosi, the popular Northern League mayor of the city shrugged off a corruption scandal which has rocked his party, the biggest opposition group in parliament, to return to office without the need for a runoff ballot.
In Palermo, veteran anti Mafia campaigner Leoluca Orlando, of the opposition Italy of Values party and backed by the hard left Refounded Communist party, had a big lead after the first round.
In Genoa, Marco Doria, supported by a leftist coalition including both the PD and Refounded Communism, was heading for a first round victory.
Early Interior Ministry figures suggested the turnout had fallen to 67 percent, down from 74 percent in the previous round of local elections.
More than 9 million people or some 20 percent of the electorate were eligible to vote in more than 900 towns and cities across Italy in the first significant election since Monti came to office last year. (Reporting by Rome bureau; Editing by Louise Ireland)