by Stefania Fumo
ROME, May 26 (Xinhua) -- Italians went to the polls Sunday to elect 76 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), a body of 751 lawmakers from the 28 members of the European Union (EU).
As of 7 p.m. local time, 41.57 percent of Italy's approximately 50 million eligible voters had turned out, the Interior Ministry said.
This compares to 40.57 percent at the same time on May 25, 2014, when a total of 58.69 percent of Italian voters took part in the EP elections, according to Interior Ministry numbers.
While 18 different political parties are competing in Italy, Sunday's vote is widely seen as a test for the government's two coalition members: the rightwing, anti-immigrant League party led by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and the populist Five Star Movement led by Economic Development and Labor Minister Luigi Di Maio.
While the two leaders have been trading barbs over each other's policies in the run-up to the vote, both parties are euroskeptic.
The other two major contenders -- the center-left Democratic Party led by Lazio Governor Nicola Zingaretti and the center-right Forza Italia party of media mogul Silvio Berlusconi -- are pro-EU.
Di Maio was silent on social media, telling reporters at the voting booth, including Italian news agency ANSA, that he would "observe the electoral silence" -- a period immediately before and during a vote, when politicians are supposed to stop campaigning and trying to sway people to their side.
Salvini did the opposite, posting several tweets calling on citizens to vote for his party. He also posted an article about a British doctor who was sued by the husband of a Muslim patient after he asked her to remove her veil during a medical visit.
"This is not the Europe I want to pass on to my children!" wrote Salvini, who has closed Italy's ports to humanitarian rescue groups saving migrant lives in the Mediterranean.
"Liberty, security and hope, not burqas, threats and submission," Salvini wrote in reference to the outer garment worn by some Muslim women, covering the entire body and face.
Berlusconi followed suit, writing on Facebook right after he cast his ballot that "choosing one of the two governing parties means protracting the agony of the country, which is weakened and ever more in crisis due to their administrative incapacity and their constant infighting...the only useful vote is the one for Forza Italia."
Also on Facebook, center-left leader Zingaretti posted a photo of himself casting his ballot and writing only: "Let's all turn out to vote!"
Of the 76 MEPs Italians will choose Sunday, three will be on standby until the UK completes its exit from the Union, at which point British MEPs will step down and their seats will be distributed among the remaining 27 member states.
Exit polls will be available soon after voting booths close at 11 p.m., with official results expected to be announced early on Monday.
The European Parliament is the EU's lawmaking body, and is directly elected by EU voters every five years. The first elections were held in 1979.