ITALIAN REGIONAL ELECTIONS TO TEST BERLUSCONI
Italians are voting in regional elections seen as the biggest test for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi since his return to power two years ago.
Thirteen out of 20 regions are involved in the vote, being held over two days.
Mr Berlusconi has been at the centre of a series of political and personal controversies, which may affect the chances of his People of Freedom party.
Earlier, police said the postal service had intercepted a letter addressed to Mr Berlusconi containing a bullet.
A package, directed at a party in Mr Berlusconi's coalition, the Northern League, was also seized but exploded, slightly injuring a postman in Milan.
A note in the package named the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, who has introduced tougher laws on illegal immigration. An anarchist group said it had sent it.
The BBC's Duncan Kennedy in Rome says that after the European Parliament elections last June, the regional elections on Sunday and Monday represent the biggest test of public opinion since Mr Berlusconi was re-elected in 2008.
Some 41 million Italians are eligible to vote – two-thirds of the population.
Close contests are likely in Lazio, which includes the capital, and Piedmont, an affluent northern region held by the centre-left.
The People of Freedom party currently controls only two of the 13 regions at stake, but had been expected to pick up more this time, our correspondent says.
However, a series of political and personal controversies surrounding Mr Berlusconi in recent months could limit the gains, he adds.
The party's candidates have been barred from standing in Lazio after an official missed a deadline to submit the required documents.
The government passed an emergency decree to ensure the electoral list was included, but a top court overturned it.
A corruption investigation into building contracts for last year's G8 summit in the earthquake-stricken Italian city of L'Aquila has also implicated Mr Berlusconi's civil protection chief, Guido Bertolaso.
Then last week, Italian media said the prime minister was being investigated for allegedly trying to pressure the communications watchdog to block state TV talk shows critical of his government.
Mr Berlusconi had already suffered a turbulent 2009, marked by allegations about his friendship with a teenage model and about escort girls attending parties at his residences.
His wife also filed for divorce, and he suffered a broken nose when a man threw a model of Milan cathedral at his face.
Unemployment and the economy are also concerns for voters.
Some analysts say a poor result in the regional elections for the People of Freedom might give the Northern League more power over Mr Berlusconi in the coalition government.
Others say the 73-year-old billionaire may even face a challenge to his leadership – possibly from the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini – though that is seen by most as unlikely.
Our correspondent says the regional elections a rare chance for millions of Italians to express their views on Mr Berlusconi.
Although turnout may not be high, the results will be studied by his allies and opponents alike, to see which direction Italy will follow, he adds.