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Berlusconi faces tough test in regional elections


Latest update : 2010-03-26

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces a tough test this weekend with Italy voting to elect regional governors. Berlusconi's popularity has been recently eroded by scandals and bureaucratic bungling.

Reuters - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces regional elections this weekend with opinion polls suggesting his popularity has been eroded by scandals and by his coalition's bureaucratic bungling ahead of the vote.

Some 40 million voters will elect governors in 13 regions of which 11 are now controlled by the centre-left opposition, which has been in disarray since it was defeated by Berlusconi in the 2008 national election. Until a few weeks ago Berlusconi had looked set for another landslide victory, but a string of corruption probes and the
exclusion of his party from the March 28-29 ballot in the key Rome province may now have hurt his chances.

Concerns over the euro zone's third largest economy, reeling from its worst post-war recession, are also likely to weigh on the vote -- the last test at the ballot box for the 73-year-old conservative leader before his third term ends in 2013.

Pollsters say rising unemployment is the top concern for 79 percent of Italians now, compared with 47 percent in 2008.

Polls issued before a two-week publication ban came into force pointed to the centre right retaining control of Lombardy and Veneto regions in the north and winning over Calabria and possibly Campania in the south.

The centre left is seen holding on to at least five regions, four of them in its traditional central heartland -- Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche -- and Basilicata in the south.

Four regions -- including Piedmont and the key Lazio region which contains Rome -- are too close to call.


"These elections are very important to give a feel of the support Berlusconi has in the country, and the relative power of the different parties in his coalition," said James Walston, political science professor at the American University of Rome.

"The results will be more confused (than usual) because at least here in Rome we don't have the main government party running, so that will be a big excuse," he said.

Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party was left off the ballot sheet in the Rome province -- which has some 3.4 million voters -- after it failed to register in time.

Surveys published before the poll blackout indicated that this could tip the balance in favour of the centre left in Lazio, and weigh on the overall turnout.

An ISPO poll for Corriere della Sera daily said the government's approval rating had fallen to 39 percent while 17 percent of voters had decided not to vote or to change their vote as a result of the pre-election chaos.

After a turbulent 2009, Berlusconi's own popularity has been hurt in the past few months by a corruption scandal involving one of his top aides, and by an investigation into his alleged attempts to shut down TV talk shows critical of his government.

Analysts say that may alter the balance of power within his coalition, with the Northern League expected to win votes in the rich, industrial north at the expense of Berlusconi's own PDL.

The League is set to take the top job in Veneto, is neck-and-neck with the centre left in the race for Piedmont, and is expected do well in Lombardy.

A strong showing would increase its weight within the government, and in turn weaken Gianfranco Fini, the lower house speaker often tipped as a possible successor to Berlusconi. Fini, whose southern-based National Alliance merged with Berlusconi's party last year, has been increasingly critical of the government, and there is some speculation that he may decide to re-create his own political force.

Date created : 2010-03-26