By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy is likely to register a strong protest vote against belt-tightening on Monday in local elections that will provide a fresh snapshot of Europe's changing political landscape a year ahead of a national ballot.
Taking place against the backdrop of a tense and somber national mood, the second round of voting to choose city majors involves nearly 120 local administrations.
Prime Minister Mario Monti - the architect of Italy's tough austerity program - is not standing, but the two main parties in the right-left coalition that support him are.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Liberty (PDL) party took a walloping in the first round, while its left-leaning Democratic Party (PD) rival wrested control of dozens of city administrations though its support weakened.
The losses of the established parties that have ruled for nearly two decades have also been a boon for scruffy-haired comic Beppe Grillo. His Five-Star Movement has catapulted from a fringe group to become the country's third biggest political force.
That change of fortune for a proponent of alternatives to tax hikes and spending cuts echoes developments earlier this month elsewhere in Europe.
Greece is politically paralyzed after inconclusive elections in which the mainstream parties that engineered the country's international bailout failed to win enough seats to form a government, while in France Socialist Francois Hollande was elected to the presidency on a pro-growth platform.
While also a litmus test of the national mood, Monday's vote in Italy has been largely overshadowed by other events.
On Sunday, a strong earthquake struck a large area of northern Italy, killing at least seven, and a Saturday bombing in front of a school in southern Italy that killed a teenage girl ignited fears of a possible return to the political violence of Italy's "years of lead" of the 1970s-80s.
Early on Monday morning a small bomb exploded in a garbage bin in the main square of Rapallo, near Genoa, without causing injuries.
END OF AN ERA
More than 900 cities voted three weeks ago, and elections end on Monday in cities where no candidate won more than 50 percent in the first ballot. Voting booths close at 1300 GMT and results should trickle out soon after.
In the first round, tax hikes, rising unemployment and a series of recent corruption scandals contributed to driving voters away from Berlusconi and his centre-left rivals towards protest parties like Grillo's.
Falling turnout, which declined almost eight percentage points from the first round to 36 percent on Sunday, also may be a measure of voter disillusion.
Grillo has based his success on lambasting Monti's austerity measures, including 24 billion euros in new taxes this year alone, and railing against the euro, banks and debt markets, targets of popular anger also in recent Greek and French national votes.
Among the most-watched races is the one in northern Parma, famous for its ham and savory Parmesan cheese.
The Five-Star Movement candidate Federico Pizzarotti, a newcomer to politics, has reached the run-off against centre-left's seasoned politician Vincenzo Bernazzoli.
Races in the northern port city of Genoa and Sicily's main city Palermo also will be important political test grounds.
"The elections have already sanctioned the end of an era, with the leaders and coalitions of the past relegated to history," Maurizio Pessato, vice chairman of SWG polling company, said in a note.
Economic hardship has contributed to voters' disillusion and helped Grillo.
Italy's economy slid further into recession in the first three months of this year, the third consecutive quarterly decline in activity and the steepest economic contraction for three years, data published on Tuesday showed.
With Monti's approval rating dropping to 38 percent according to pollster SWG, down from 71 percent shortly after he took over from a discredited Berlusconi in November, the premier is trying to shift focus to growth from austerity.
Monti got a hand from U.S. President Barack Obama at the Group of Eight leaders summit on Friday and Saturday.
Obama, concerned about the knock-on effects of the euro zone debt crisis on the U.S. economy and his own re-election bid, pushed for greater efforts to help growth.
The G8 communiqué endorsed calls to broaden Europe's focus beyond German-backed austerity in the first line, calling it "our imperative" to promote growth and job creation.
(Editing by John Stonestreet)