ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi goes into elections this weekend hoping nascent signs of economic recovery after years of recession will outweigh a corruption scandal that has dogged one of the main candidates of his centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
Sunday's ballots in seven regions and more than 1,000 municipalities, which follow a bruising series of parliamentary battles over Renzi's reform agenda, will be his biggest test since a triumph in last year's European elections.
Emboldened by the success of Spain's anti-austerity Podemos party in their local elections last weekend, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement is hoping voter disillusion with the mainstream parties will give it a boost.
PD leftwingers are also in rebellious mood over labour reforms and changes to electoral rules which they say weaken the independence of parliament.
But facing a divided centre-right, where a new generation is fighting to seize the reins from the 78-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, Renzi's candidates are expected to win in most of the regions being contested. They currently hold power in five of the seven.
The centre-right is confident of keeping the northeastern region of Veneto, one of the heartlands of the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Northern League, whose 41-year-old leader Matteo Salvini has emerged as the strongest leader on the right.
Helped by early signs of economic recovery, Renzi's centre-left is expected to win in its central heartlands of Tuscany, Umbria and Le Marche, as well as Puglia in the southeast.
Campania in the south and Liguria in the northwest, where an alternative leftwing candidate could erode PD support, remain the main likely battlegrounds.
Appointed last year after a party coup that brought him to office without winning a national election, Renzi, 40, is counting on voter backing for a mandate to press on with bitterly contested school reforms this year.
Playing down expectations, he said this month that if the PD won four of the seven regions "it would still be a victory".
However, the election risks being overshadowed by scandals surrounding several candidates, including Vincenzo De Luca, the PD candidate for president of Campania, the region around the crime-ridden city of Naples.
Renzi has backed De Luca, who was chosen as the PD candidate in a primary ballot, but the case has highlighted how little control he exerts over local party organisations with strong local power bases.
De Luca, a deputy minister in the government of former Prime Minister Enrico Letta, is appealing against a conviction for abuse of office over the award of a local incinerator plant contract in 2008.
Several other local candidates from Campania are also expected to feature on a list of 17 "impresentabili" or "unpresentables" expected to be unveiled by the parliamentary anti-mafia committee on Friday.
An old-style local party baron who was forced to resign as mayor of Salerno after the ruling, De Luca has shrugged off criticism and has a narrow opinion poll lead over sitting regional president Stefano Caldoro of the centre-right.
However, even if he wins on Sunday, he may be forced to stand down if a judge rules he is ineligible under anti-corruption laws that prevent convicted criminals from holding public office.
Editing by Janet Lawrence