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Italy's Berlusconi faces key test in regional polls

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-03-29

After a tragi-comic campaign marked by macho slurs, legal wrangling and a now-infamous “panino”, Italian voters head to the polls Sunday and Monday to elect their regional councils in a key test for the country’s flamboyant prime minister.

A threatening letter containing a bullet addressed to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and a letter bomb sent to a cabinet minister added a dramatic finale Saturday to the most chaotic election campaign in recent Italian history.

The threats – the second of which was claimed by the little-known Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI) – came on the eve of fiercely contested regional elections, with voters summoned to the polls Sunday and Monday in the last major electoral test ahead of a 2013 general election.

After a first day of voting, turnout was down 9% from previous polls in 2005, to 47.7%, underscoring mounting voter dissatisfaction. Analysts have suggested this could hurt the ruling centre-right most.

At 73, the Italian prime minister has staked his reputation on the polls by playing a frontline role in the campaign, which he rounded up on Friday with a marathon round of interviews on Italy’s main television channels – half of which he owns.

Beset by scandal and flagging approval rates, Berlusconi has pulled off a trademark attacking campaign aimed largely at the opposition and the judiciary, whom he repeatedly accused of seeking to undermine his government.

But the media tycoon has been fighting an uphill battle ever since his People of Freedom party (PDL, centre right) failed to register for the vote in the key region of Lazio (Rome) after a member of staff missed the deadline because he had popped out for a "panino" (sandwich).

The spectacular blunder led to weeks of legal wrangling, during which Italian courts repeatedly quashed pleas to have the party re-admitted and dismissed an emergency electoral decree pushed through by the government, leading Berlusconi to blast what he described as “communist judges”.

A close race

The bungle in Rome appears to have dented the PDL’s chances of wresting control of Lazio from the left, which currently controls 11 of the 13 regions up for grabs.

According to the latest opinion polls, published two weeks ahead of the elections, the PDL-led centre-right is expected to hold on to its northern strongholds of Lombardy and Veneto and could well take two more regions in the south.

Victory in the swing region of Piedmont, in north-west Italy, would be seen as a triumph for Berlusconi. But the centre-left Democratic Party’s decision to focus its campaign on jobs, and its new-found unity under the leadership of Pier-Luigi Bersani, could pay off in an industrial region deeply affected by the financial crisis.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the biggest challenges facing Berlusconi could come from his own coalition allies. A strong showing by the Northern League, which is eyeing significant gains in northern regions, is likely to alter the balance of power in the ruling coalition in favour of the anti-immigration party.

This could further alienate Berlusconi’s one-time key ally Gianfranco Fini, who heads the lower house of parliament and has grown increasingly critical of the government.                               

Date created : 2010-03-27


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