By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press
ROME (AP) — Italians voted Sunday in the first elections since Mario Monti was tapped to save Italy from its debt crisis — balloting seen as a gauge of public anger over parties supporting his austerity measures and disillusionment over Italy's traditional political blocs.
Some 9.5 million Italians were eligible to vote for 942 city councils and mayorships across Italy in balloting Sunday and Monday.
By Sunday evening, turnout was at 38 percent, lower than the last time such administrative elections were held. Analysts have suggested a low turnout may reflect a protest vote. Final results are expected late Monday.
Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom party and the center-left Democratic Party have both supported Monti, who was appointed in November after markets lost faith in Berlusconi's ability to reign in debt and spur growth.
Monti's technical government has pushed through tax hikes, budget cuts and pension reforms deemed necessary by the EU and markets to restore Italy's financial footing. But public anger is growing over the austerity measures and increasing unemployment, with a rash of recent suicides and other desperate acts blamed on Italians' financial troubles.
Just Saturday, an elderly man in Naples shot himself in the head, purportedly because of anxiety over unpaid taxes. He remains hospitalized. Earlier in the week, an armed man took hostages in the Bergamo office of Italy's tax collection agency before being apprehended; he too owed the tax man.
Monti has vowed not to run for office in national elections scheduled for 2013, and his government of technocrats wasn't being judged in the elections. But the parties that support him were and the results should be a gauge of whether Italians will punish them or simply stay home.
In addition, the voting marked the first time the Northern League, long a Berlusconi ally, will test voter sentiment after a party funding scandal that saw its leader Umberto Bossi and his son resign.
The League should have been able to capitalize on the election because of its opposition to Monti's government. But the scandal may prove more important to its voter base.
Another sign of anger at the EU-demanded austerity measures is the popularity of stand-up comic Beppe Grillo, who is leading a populist movement against the euro.
Political commentator Angelo Panebianco said Grillo's popularity was both a reflection of anti-European sentiment brewing in Italy as well as disillusionment over Italy's traditional political blocs.
"In the end, what works for Europe works for Italian parties," he wrote in Corriere della Sera on Sunday. "Either they find credible, serious solutions to our problems, or they'll be slapped in the face harder and harder by voters who are disoriented and in search of alternatives that are more or less illusory."
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