Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition suffered a humiliating defeat in mayoral elections in Milan and Naples on Monday, casting doubt over the legally embattled Italian leader's future.
Left-wing lawyer Giuliano Pisapia triumphed in Milan against Letizia Moratti from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, ending the right's 18-year hold on the city and dealing a heavy blow to the Italian premier in his home town.
Pisapia garnered 55.10 % of the vote, while Moratti won 44.89 % in the second round of a mayoral vote held on Sunday and Monday.
In Naples, which was already controlled by the left, Luigi De Magistris, a former prosecutor, also won out against his rival with 65.37 percent.
The centre-right lost other votes in Cagliari, Novara and Trieste but the defeat in Milan -- Italy's economic capital -- was seen as the most symbolically significant and a bellwether for anti-Berlusconi sentiment.
"I am delighted! This is an awakening of consciences that have been asleep during years of incivility, of an absence of culture," said Giovanna Cardarelli, 55, in a crowd of thousands rallying in front of Milan cathedral.
Emanuele Crespi, a 28-year-old student, said: "Citizens understood that we needed real change. Pisapia is the right man to relaunch Milan, which needs radical reforms to become a city that can be a European player."
"Free Milan!" Pisapia supporters chanted as he gave his victory speech.
Berlusconi had actively campaigned on Moratti's behalf and declared the vote should be seen as a test of his popularity, which has been falling after a series of legal and sex scandals and continued weakness in the economy.
Berlusconi's trial on charges of having sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power is to resume in Milan on Tuesday, although he will not attend.
"I think the will for change is a signal for the entire country.... Berlusconi has become obsessed in recent years with his own affairs," Pisapia said in an interview with news channel SkyTG24 after his election victory.
Speaking in Romania, where he was attending a bilateral summit, Berlusconi recognised his defeat but sounded combative, Italian news media reported.
"We lost, it's clear. But now we have to remain calm and move forward. The majority is determined and united," he said.
"Every time I suffer a setback, I triple my forces," he added.
Analysts say the defeat will put pressure on the coalition between Berlusconi and the Northern League party, which has shown signs of growing disenchantment with the prime minister's leadership in recent weeks.
"The first equilibrium to go would be the precarious one that holds Berlusconi and the Northern League party on the same side," commented La Stampa daily, which also predicted a "a very tough reckoning" in Berlusconi's party.
"It's a personal defeat for Berlusconi.... We can say that Berlusconi's time is up," said Marc Lazar, a French professor specialising in Italian politics.
Lazar however warned that the partnership with the Northern League would be "more uncertain" but said the vote would not bring down the government.
"It's a major shock for the governing coalition, we will see a settling of accounts. There are risks of defections in the majority," he added.
Some experts have said that the problem now will be infighting and the absence of a clear succession in the centre-right after Berlusconi, who is a defendant in three trials and is ruling with a slim parliamentary majority.
The result in Milan is also likely to lead to a major rethink within the main opposition centre-left Democratic Party since several of the winning candidates on Monday are not party members and have more leftist stances.
Pisapia's surprise first round win prompted a heated fightback by the centre-right, with Berlusconi leading the charge by warning that Milan would become "an Islamic city" and "a gypsyville" under a leftist leadership.