Italy's centre-right government has suffered heavy losses in local polls seen as a crucial test for next year's general election.
Italians are asking us to get ready to govern: Prodi
Partial results show the government has only definitely won two of 13 regions taking part in the local council vote.
It is a huge boost for the opposition centre-left leader Romano Prodi who is expected to stand against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi next year.
The poll was overshadowed by the death of Pope John Paul II.
Several events and TV debates were cancelled, but it did not affect turnout which stood at more than 71%.
Before the two-day election, eight regions were held by the governing coalition and five by the opposition.
Only the regions of Lombardy, which contains Milan - Italy's financial heart - and Veneto, which includes Venice, appear to still be in the governing coalition's hands.
"With this vote, Italians are asking us to get ready to govern," said Mr Prodi, an ex-prime minister and former European Commission president.
Mr Berlusconi's political allies tried to play down the apparent defeat.
"This was a local battle, the national one is still to be fought," Fabrizio Cicchitto, a leading member of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, told Italian state television.
Meanwhile, a bitter controversy arose after several cities were plastered with posters mourning the Pope and carrying symbols of political parties.
The interior ministry later ordered the removal of the posters, on the grounds that campaigning is forbidden once people start voting.
More than 41 million Italians were eligible to cast their ballots, which Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said could not be deferred despite the Pope's death.
"The pain for the Holy Father cannot distract us from our duties as citizens," the Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.