Voting across in Italy was held despite a threatened resurgence of the coronavirus= / © AFP
Italians voted Monday in elections that could see the far right take the historic left-wing bastion of Tuscany, one of several regions up for grabs in a ballot that risks weakening an already fragile federal government.
Polling stations opened Sunday for the two-day vote, despite a threatened resurgence of the coronavirus in Italy, which was the first country in Europe to go into lockdown and is now registering more than 1,500 new cases daily.
Ballots are being cast nationwide for a referendum on cutting parliament numbers, but all eyes are on elections held at the same time in seven regions: Campania, Liguria, Marche, Puglia, Tuscany, Valle d'Aosta and Veneto.
Voting ends at 3pm (1300 GMT) and results are expected late Monday. Turnout was around 40 percent at the close of Sunday.
The high-profile battle is for Tuscany, which has been ruled by the left for 50 years, but may soon be swapping the socialists for far-right leader Matteo Salvini's League party.
"It's all to play for. The left has underestimated this campaign. It thought it had it in the bag, and that Tuscans would never look to the future," Salvini told a rally near the Leaning Tower of Pisa as he closed his campaign.
The high-profile battle is for Tuscany, which may soon be swapping the socialists for far-right leader Matteo Salvini's League party / © POOL/AFP
The left is expected to hold Campania in the south, but the coalition of Salvini's League, Giorgia Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia may well snatch neighbouring Puglia.
And the right is set to win easily in its strongholds of Veneto and Liguria, as well as taking the Marche.
- 'Times have changed' -
Such sweeping victories could further fracture the brittle relationship between the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and its ruling partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
And it would bolster the right's claim that the uneasy coalition -- not elected, but installed after the previous government collapsed -- is politically weak, and Italy's president should bring forward the 2023 national election.
"The atmosphere is very tense," political journalist Raffaele Palumbo told AFP.
The last polls to be published showed a tight race in Tuscany.
Polling stations opened Sunday for the two-day vote, despite a threatened resurgence of the coronavirus in Italy / © AFP
"A far-right victory in Tuscany would be intolerable, unthinkable. I don't know anyone who says they are voting League, but people lie," said voter Beatrice Lolli, 47, a B&B owner in Scandicci, a Florence suburb.
MEP Susanna Ceccardi, who has adopted Salvini's "Italians first" mantra, garnered 41.5 percent of voter intentions in Tuscany, compared to 43.7 percent for rival Eugenio Giani from the PD, according to polling firm YouTrend.
The PD only narrowly frustrated a League bid in January to take Emilia Romagna, one of its biggest strongholds.
Ceccardi, 33, was until recently known only to the inhabitants of Casina, a porticoed town near Pisa, which was the first to turn to the League when she was elected mayor four years ago.
Since then, Renaissance art cities from Pisa to Siena have flipped to the right.
Roberto Bianchi, contemporary history professor at Florence University, said the right has long tried to woo Tuscany.
"In 2000, a frustrated Berlusconi even launched a campaign to 'de-Tuscanise Tuscany'. It was a disaster," he said.
"But times have changed. And the left has neglected its own history, its roots, its base," he added.
- Door to door -
The region has no glaring problems to drive a protest vote -- the health system has performed well during the Covid-19 pandemic, immigrants are well integrated, and the quality of life is high, journalist Palumbo said.
Susanna Ceccardi, who has adopted Salvini's "Italians first" mantra, is running for Tuscany / © AFP
But it is not immune to national or international trends, he said, such as the lure of populism.
Ceccardi, who has a one-year-old daughter, smiles down from buses and billboards across the region. In sleek television campaign adverts she has urged Tuscans to "choose change".
Unlike his rival, the PD's Giani, 61, does not have Salvini's famed communications team -- dubbed "the Beast" -- behind him.
Among Giani's pre-vote efforts, the Stampa newspaper pointed out, was a Facebook photo of him stroking a cow.
"Salvini's presence is very strong," Palumbo said.
"But Giani has spent the last few years as a regional politician going round every single little town, door to door.
"He knows everyone, and that could help him".