Italians were electing mayors in cities and towns across the country on Sunday, with Premier Silvio Berlusconi hoping to avert defeat in his stronghold of Milan.
The voting, which continues Monday, is fraught with potential risks for the government's stability and Berlusconi's leadership.
A defeat in Milan, where Berlusconi has done well in the past, would be a heavy blow to the 74-year-old leader and likely unleash further tensions with his government allies.
The premier has been weakened by sex scandals, worn out by legal woes and besieged by unhappy allies, including the Northern League, on whose support the government depends.
Berlusconi was spending the weekend outside of the public eye in his Sardinian villa.
More than 5.5 million Italians are eligible to cast ballots in almost 90 run-offs to elect mayors and other local representatives across Italy. But in political terms it all boils down to the contests in Milan and, to a lesser extent, Naples.
The conservatives have held Milan, Italy's financial and fashion capital and the center of Berlusconi's business, for nearly 20 years. The city is also a crucial power base of Berlusconi's main government party, the Northern League.
But in the first round of voting two weeks ago, Berlusconi's candidate, incumbent Mayor Letizia Moratti, trailed behind her center-left opponent, Giuliano Pisapia, by more than 6 percentage points.
In Naples, the other key race, Berlusconi's candidate, Gianni Lettieri, is seen as a front-runner after he won the first round _ though he failed to garner the 51 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a run-off. His opponent is a former magistrate, Luigi de Magistris, who promises to increase recycling to help ease Naples' long-standing garbage collection crisis.
The center-left has long controlled Naples, but Berlusconi has a chance to grab it as Neapolitans might punish local administrators for failing to solve the garbage problem and decrease the city's high unemployment rate.
Berlusconi insists his government's stability will not be affected by the local voting, whatever the result. But his own popularity has been sagging, amid the country's economic woes and his personal legal problems.
Ratings agency Standard and Poor's has cut its outlook for Italy's debt from stable to negative, citing low growth and concerns about the government's ability to reduce public borrowing. This week, the government was criticized by the powerful industrialists' association Confindustria for failing to revive the country's sluggish economy.
In April, Berlusconi went on trial on charges that he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan prostitute and tried to cover it up. This current voting is his first electoral test since the trial opened. Another three cases _ all related to his business _ are active against him in Milan.
The premier has denied all the charges and accused magistrates of being intent of ousting him politically.
He even took his fury against the Italian magistrates to last week's Group of Eight summit in France, telling a seemingly surprised President Barack Obama that "we have almost a dictatorship of leftist judges."
The move, caught by cameras, has drawn a barrage of criticism and scorn, and led a recently appointed undersecretary, Daniela Melchiorre, to pull out of the government.