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Berlusconi triumphs but support dips

June 9, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome, June 9, 2009

Italians remained largely faithful to Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government, according to results from European elections at the weekend, despite controversy over the prime minister’s colourful and high-spending life-style, and allegations of corruption raised by Milan judges.

Aides, however, indicated that Mr Berlusconi was unhappy that his People of Liberty party had failed to win the resounding endorsement he desired in order to rebut the foreign and domestic criticism directed against his personal conduct and legislation  passed to protect his interests.

“Berlusconi is doing fine, I would not say satisfied,” said Paolo Bonaiuti, his spokesman, pointing to a relatively low turnout by Italian standards and what he called “much abuse in gossiping about the prime minister”.

Supporters said Mr Berlusconi’s result was the best of any incumbent prime minister in the 27 countries voting.

The People of Liberty slipped to 35.3 per cent of the vote from 37.4 per cent in general elections a year ago. Mr Berlusconi had expressed confidence his party would score up to 45 per cent. Polls two weeks earlier had indicated 40 per cent.

Still, any disappointment was offset by a sharp drop in support for the opposition centre-left Democratic party, led by Dario Franceschini, which took 26.2 per cent against 33.2 per cent a year ago.

The Democrats, riven by infighting and unable to project a coherent response to Italy’s economic recession, also fared badly in local elections. With results still coming in, the party had lost control of at least a dozen provincial administrations, including Milan, Naples and Bari.

Nonetheless, Mr Franceschini expressed satisfaction with the European results which were better than the wipeout some supporters had feared.

“This vote destroys the myth of Berlusconi’s invincibility,” the Catholic lawyer and fiction writer told a press conference. He thanked Italians for stopping the emergence of an “absolute ruler”. He also made another call for party unity to stop the internal wrangling that led Walter Veltroni to quit as leader in February and has not stopped since.

Demonstrating the fragility of Italy’s shift towards a more bipolar political system seen a year ago, the real winners from the elections were smaller, more populist parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions.

Umberto Bossi’s right-wing, anti-immigration Northern League, which holds key government posts, increased its share to 10.2 per cent from 8.2 per cent a year ago.

Meanwhile the opposition Italy of Values party nearly doubled its vote to 8.0 per cent. Antonio Di Pietro, its leader and former anti-corruption magistrate, is the toughest critic of Mr Berlusconi in parliament and demanded his resignation after a panel of judges accused him of corruption in a case dating back to the 1990s.

Parliament gave Mr Berlusconi immunity from prosecution last year.

Italy’s radical left-wing parties and the Greens were left again in the political wilderness, failing to cross the 4 per cent threshold needed to win representation in a repeat of their disastrous showing in last year’s national elections.

The media tycoon’s private life exploded onto the public scene last month when  Veronica Lario accused her 72-year-old billionaire husband of  “frequenting minors” and promoting the political careers of TV showgirls. She has asked for a divorce.

Mr Berlusconi denied having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring model from Naples, and secured a court order to seize hundreds of photographs taken of parties at his private villa. Prosecutors are investigating whether he abused his office in using state flights to ferry his guests.

Mr Berlusconi has also come under pressure from fans of AC Milan, his football club. On Monday he was reported to be occupied with the possible sale of Kaka, his Brazilian playmaker, to Real Madrid for as much as 65m euros.

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