ROME (Reuters) - Italians went to the polls on Sunday in local elections that will provide the first test of voter resistance to Prime Minister Mario Monti's increasingly unpopular austerity policies since his appointment last year.
Monti himself is not in the race, but for the two main parties which support his technocrat government in parliament, the vote will be a barometer of support ahead of national elections next year.
Both the centre-right PDL and the centre-left PD are jockeying for position ahead of the 2013 vote but face an increasingly sceptical electorate which has been bitterly resentful of tax hikes imposed by the Monti government.
With national elections in France and Greece and an important state election in Germany on the same day, the vote will help provide one of the most comprehensive snapshots of popular mood across Europe since the outbreak of the financial crisis.
More than 9 million Italians, or nearly 20 percent of the total electorate, are eligible to vote in the elections in around 900 towns across Italy, including important provincial centres like Palermo, Genoa and Verona.
An opinion poll on Friday showed the PD leading the PDL, but more than 38 percent of respondents were either undecided or ready to abstain. The same poll suggested that Beppe Grillo, a maverick comedian who wants Italy to leave the euro and default on its debt, would capture the third biggest share of the vote.
Polling stations opened at 8.00 am (0600 GMT) on Sunday, with preliminary results expected after voting closes at 3.00 pm on Monday.
Reporting By James Mackenzie; Editing by Andrew Osborn