Candidates against austerity lead in Italian vote

Several candidates opposed to austerity measures were making a strong showing Monday in Italy's local elections, partial results indicated, in the first nationwide test for Premier Mario Monti since he was named to save Italy from its debt crisis.

Analysts watched for signs of voter anger in two days of balloting over Monti's austerity measures and toward mainstream parties that have supported them since Monti took over from Silvio Berlusconi in November.

Stand-up comic Beppe Grillo was among those encouraging citizen discontent with mainstream politics in the run-up to the vote, as well as whipping up populist sentiment against the euro. The Grillo movement's candidate in Parma, in northern Italy, appeared to gain enough votes to make it to a runoff, projections indicated.

In Genoa, a left-wing candidate who in the primaries defeated the candidates of mainstream center-left parties appeared on the way to gaining the most votes, although it was still unclear if a runoff would be avoided.

And the popular mayor of Verona, whose Northern League party has strongly opposed a new housing tax promoted by Monti's government, appeared headed to a first-round victory.

But elsewhere, other League candidates were faring less well in the wake of a party funding embezzlement probe, though officials said the Verona victory indicates the party, which refused to back Monti in Parliament, will survive.

Italy's more established parties saw disappointing results.

"We made a mistake with our candidates, I don't have a problem admitting it," said Ignazio La Russa, former defense minister in the Berlusconi government.

But despite the disappointing results, leaders of Berlusconi's conservative Freedom People party vowed to keep backing Monti.

"We support the Monti government," said Angelino Alfano, who was tapped by Berlusconi as party chief. "We didn't decide on the basis of this result to pull our support because we are a responsible party," Alfano told a news conference in Rome.

Berlusconi was in Moscow for the swearing-in ceremony of his friend Vladimir Putin, elected anew to the Russian presidency.

The government said turnout after polls closed was 67.5 percent, 6.5 percent lower than in the last such elections. Some 9.5 million Italians were eligible to vote for 942 city councils and mayorships.

Appearing headed to garner most of the vote in Palermo — but possibly not the more than 50-percent share to avoid a runoff — was Leoluca Orlando, a former mayor of that Sicilian city running again for that post.

His Italy of Values Party has refused to join the majority of forces in Parliament supporting Monti and has denounced the premier for demanding what it says are too many sacrifices from the working class and not enough from the rich.