Italians are voting in local elections expected to test whether a sex scandal, three corruption trials and a stagnating economy have damaged Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, two years before the end of his term.

Some 13 million Italians, nearly a quarter of the population, are eligible to vote on Sunday and Monday in 1,177 towns and nine provinces, although turnout is expected to be relatively low because of disillusionment with the political climate.

The most important contests are in the four big cities of Turin, Naples, Bologna and Milan - Italy's business capital and Berlusconi's home town - where his centre-right coalition runs the risk of losing for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The divided centre-left, unable so far to capitalise on Berlusconi's woes, hopes to show the tide is turning.

In Milan it has pinned its hopes on Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer who may have the best chance in years to topple the centre-right city government.

Incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti is seen as vulnerable because of wide middle class disappointment at her failure to modernise the city.

Commentators say that even a run-off in Milan, let alone Moratti's defeat, would be a blow to Berlusconi.

Declining popularity

The local vote follows opinion polls putting Berlusconi's popularity at about 30 per cent, the lowest since he swept to power for the third time in 2008, but more than once in the past the 74-year-old premier has defied predictions that his grip on power was weakening.

Since March, Berlusconi has faced four concurrent trials for alleged corruption, tax fraud and, most sensationally, allegations of having sex with an underage girl and then using his office to cover it up.

He is also battling accusations that he has failed to tackle Italy's low growth, and strains have intensified in his alliance with the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant Northern League.

The League, vital for Berlusconi's survival after he split from long-time ally Gianfranco Fini, has repeatedly distanced itself from him, notably opposing Italy's involvement in the NATO bombing of Libya.

If it does well in the vote at the expense of Berlusconi's PDL party, it will demand an even bigger say in the coalition. With so much at stake, Berlusconi has hit the campaign trail over the past two weeks, criss-crossing the country and turning the election into a vote on him rather than on local issues.

Using his trademark mix of jokes, invectives against magistrates and opponents, and last-minute electoral pledges, he has stolen the limelight and dictated the political agenda. 

Over the past few days he has called prosecutors a "cancer of democracy" and said the opposition "don't wash much".

In Naples, where rubbish has piled up in the streets, he promised to scrap a rubbish tax until the city is clean and to stop demolishing houses built illegally for a year.

The final result is expected after polls close on Monday.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies