updated 10/25/2009 6:50:47 PM ET 2009-10-25T22:50:47

Supporters of Italy's main opposition party voted Sunday to select a new leader in a nationwide primary overshadowed by a scandal that has engulfed a prominent leftist politician.

The center-left Democratic Party has been in disarray since losing the 2008 election to Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservatives. Three candidates are running in Sunday's primary seen as crucial to relaunch the party, which has been hurt by lack of strong leadership and deep internal divisions.

More than 2.5 million people cast ballots, organizers said, adding that the figure was still not final. They said that long lines forced some polling stations to remain open past the scheduled cut off of 8 p.m. (1900 GMT).

The scandal centers on an alleged encounter between center-left politician Piero Marrazzo and a transsexual prostitute in a Rome apartment in July. Four policemen have been arrested for allegedly attempting to blackmail the 51-year-old Marrazzo over the encounter, and media reports said there is a video evidence.

An investigation is under way.

Just hours before the polls opened, Marrazzo bowed to mounting pressure and announced he will resign from the high-profile job of governor of the Lazio region, which includes the Italian capital Rome.

Living a ‘nightmare’
In an interview published Sunday, he said he was living a "nightmare" and that he hadn't gone to the police out of fear and shame.

"I remember it as a nightmare," Marrazzo said in the interview with Rome newspaper La Repubblica. "They entered that room, they said they were law enforcement officials, they looked through my wallet, they took some money. To avoid things getting worse, I wrote three checks."

He said, however, that the checks were not cashed.

"I kept silent and I made a mistake, a terrible mistake, I had to report everything. But I was ashamed," Marrazzo was quoted as saying.

A number of sex scandals have hit Italy and Premier Silvio Berlusconi has made headlines for months for his relations with young women. Berlusconi's allies, who have had to defend the premier in the face of accusations of improper behavior, were quick to capitalize on the latest incident, saying that the opposition could no longer claim the moral high ground.

The three candidates running in the primary praised Marrazzo's decision to step down, looking to turn the page quickly and focus on the voting.

The candidates vying to become leader are Dario Franceschini, who as incumbent secretary has shepherded the party to the primary vote; Pier Luigi Bersani, a former industry minister; and outsider Ignazio Marino.

Bersani is widely seen as the front-runner going into the vote. However, if no candidate wins 50 percent plus one of the vote, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will take place at a party assembly next month.

Partial results were not expected until early Monday.

Tough to reverse party’s fortunes
Whoever wins will have a tough job reversing the fortunes of the Democratic Party.

Since last year's election, it has lost other rounds of balloting, hemorrhaging votes amid lack of clear focus and infighting. The party has been largely ineffectual in mounting an opposition to Berlusconi's forces, who have a comfortable majority in parliament.

Andrea Soriero, a center-left supporter who had just cast his vote at a polling station in central Rome, said it was important to create a viable alternative to Berlusconi, whose power he said was unchallenged.

"I believe we need to mobilize in a democratic way," Soriero said. "Berlusconi is an anomaly in the European context."

Voting is open not just to registered members of the party, but to Italian citizens or foreigners residing in Italy above the age of 16. Some 10,000 polling stations were set up across the country.

More on: Italy

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