ROME - Former European Commission President Romano Prodi takes a first step in his campaign to oust Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday with the opening of opposition primaries he is widely expected to win.
Prodi, who beat Berlusconi in 1996 elections, is expected to win the vote against six other candidates from across the left-wing spectrum.
The prime minister has called the primaries a vote for democracy after the government last week rammed a rewrite of electoral rules through parliament. The centre-left opposition says the move was aimed at saving the centre-right coalition from electoral defeat next spring.
"After this undemocratic electoral reform we need to show that we are strong and we have faith in the future," Prodi said before the polls opened.
Around 10,000 voting booths opened across Italy at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Sunday and will remain open until 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). All Italians registered to vote are eligible to take part and pollsters expect as many as one million votes to be cast.
Each voter has been asked to pay a 1 euro ($1.20) contribution towards administrative costs. Results are not expected until late on Sunday night.
Leaders of Italy's myriad centre-left parties have put internal bickering aside and backed primaries for the first time in the hope of creating a united front against billionaire media tycoon Berlusconi and the centre-right coalition.
"When the polls shut Berlusconi will be looking at only one result: how many votes will Romano Prodi get, because that is who his adversary will be in 2006," said Piero Fassino, leader of the main opposition party, the Democrats of the Left (DS) who has thrown the weight of his party behind Prodi.
But Berlusconi's electoral reform passed by the lower house of parliament on Thursday has wrongfooted Prodi, threatening to overshadow his big day.
Critics have also dismissed the vote as a non-event because organisers have said they expect Prodi to win and because none of the participants have presented a manifesto.
Berlusconi's reform will almost certainly replace the existing hybrid voting system at the next election, which is due by May, 2006. It proposes a proportional representation system to guarantee the winning coalition at least 54 percent of seats in both houses of parliament, regardless of their vote tally.
Recent opinion polls forecast that Prodi's alliance would secure a handsome victory under the old system, but would do less well with the reform, thanks partly to the fact that Berlusconi's allies have always performed better in PR votes.
The reform poses a separate headache for Prodi, who is not a member of any political party. This was allowed under the previous system and guaranteed him independence in dealing with his varied allies, but it is not allowed by the new text.
Deputy Prime Minister Gianfranco Fini, leader of the right-wing National Alliance party, said with the reform and the absence of manifestos the primaries were a wash-out.
Prodi is running against six other candidates, with his biggest threat coming from veteran Communist leader, Fausto Bertinotti -- the man who brought down Prodi's previous government in 1998.
Opinion polls suggest Prodi should win the primary with 60 percent backing, but it is uncertain how many centre-left sympathisers will actually turn out to vote and some officials believe hard-left militants will be more motivated.