By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - A raft of local ballots and a referendum this month mark the first electoral test for Italy's government since the coronavirus crisis, with the bickering ruling parties struggling in the face of a united right.
Voters have largely approved of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's handling of the pandemic, but polls suggest this will not help his coalition allies in the Sept. 20-21 vote for the presidents of seven regions and mayors in almost 1,000 towns.
Relishing the end of the lockdown, League leader Matteo Salvini, the de facto head of the opposition right, is criss-crossing the country looking to show that his three-party bloc is the predominant force in Italian politics.
Recent polls say the centre-left could lose three regions, including its traditional stronghold Tuscany, while keeping hold of Campania, in the south. The right should easily retain power in the two places it currently governs -- Liguria and Veneto.
The seventh regional vote is taking place in the tiny, French-speaking Valle D'Aosta, which has its own party system.
"If government parties win just one or two of these regions, things could get complicated for it," said Gianfranco Pasquino, politics professor at Bologna University. Losing regions could increase the pressure on them from the opposition parties, whose popularity with voters is already high.
The only vote involving the whole country is the referendum on a reform championed by the ruling 5-Star Movement, which calls for a sharp cut in the number of parliamentarians -- something other parties have only endorsed lukewarmly, but which the public is expected to back enthusiastically.
Most attention is locked onto the regional races, which despite being heavily focused on local issues nonetheless take the political temperature of the whole country.
"The point is that there is a national trend in favour of the centre-right, which can also be seen at the local level," said polling expert Antonio Noto. "If national elections were held today, the right would lead the field."
The next parliamentary elections are not due until 2023 and the euro-sceptic Salvini will undoubtedly call for the government to stand down if the two main coalition parties, 5-Star and the Democratic Party (PD), get a drubbing.
Conte, who is a lawyer with no party affiliation, said at the weekend the vote would have no repercussions on his year-old administration, but acknowledged his allies could notch up a bad result, blaming this on their failure to forge local alliances.
Noto said the PD would have had a much better chance of retaining power in Tuscany, centred on Florence, and Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot, if 5-Star had not decided to shun a potential tie-up and instead run alone.
The fact the PD is ahead in Campania is down to its maverick local leader, Vincenzo De Luca, whose popularity soared thanks to his toughman approach to coronavirus, with him threatening to use flamethrowers against students who ignored lockdown curbs.
Supporters say his rigid stance kept the cap on COVID cases in the densely populated region, which is centred on Naples.
Another regional chief widely seen to have done a good job in the pandemic was Veneto leader Luca Zaia, who is forecast to take more than 70% of the vote this month -- a landslide victory that will enhance his position within his League party as a counterweight to the impulsive Salvini.
While the government, busy working on a blueprint to salvage the crashing economy, is likely to survive a bad showing this month, the head of the PD, Nicola Zingaretti, might be vulnerable -- especially if Tuscany falls.
He tried, but failed to hook up with 5-Star around the country and has struggled to provide his bickering party with a clear policy platform.
One party critic, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Zingaretti's political cycle "is over".
(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alexandra Hudson)