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Berlusconi struggles to rally supporters ahead of polls

March 22, 2010

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 22 2010

Silvio Berlusconi failed to muster the numbers he had hoped for at a weekend rally of his centre-right People of Liberty party in Rome, raising the prospect of a tighter-than-anticipated battle in key regional elections.

Voting in 13 regions – where the centre-right holds only two at the moment – will have an important bearing on his coalition government over its remaining three years in office, with commentators predicting that a poor showing will exacerbate internal power struggles that could trigger early general elections.

Mr Berlusconi’s party paid for bus and train tickets for supporters to attend Saturday evening’s rally in Piazza San Giovanni, even cold-calling Rome residents offering them a free dinner if they attended.

Organisers had predicted a turnout of at least 500,000 and declared triumphantly to the crowd that 1m had shown up. But police later shot down that figure, estimating a turnout of less than 150,000, prompting furious retorts from party leaders who in turn were denounced by Roberto Maroni, interior minister and a key coalition partner. FT reporters at the event estimated the crowd at about 100,000.

Campaigning on Sunday, Mr Berlusconi avoided the numbers war but expressed his concern over the danger of voters staying away. At the same time he turned down a suggestion that he hold a television debate with Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left opposition Democrats.

The last polls published a week ago before a pre-election blackout indicated that the centre-right could be confident of taking just one region – Calabria – from the centre-left, with close races predicted in Campania around Naples, Lazio which includes Rome, and the industrial northwest of Piemonte.

Just a month ago, Mr Berlusconi appeared to be on his way to gaining three or four regions before a series of investigations into suspected corruption scandals fuelled tensions between the prime minister and the judiciary.

The government’s heavy-handed attempts – ultimately blocked by the courts – to redress the People of Liberty’s bungling of its registration of candidates in the Rome area also cost Mr Berlusconi support. The party missed its registration deadline when the official designated to hand in its lists turned up late because of a sandwich break.

Nonetheless, the latest allegations levelled by prosecutors – that the prime minister tried to block political talk-shows on the state broadcaster delving into his past – appeared to have galvanised supporters at the Rome rally who were outraged that investigators had listened in to his private telephone conversations with senior officials in the media.

“Would they dare to tap the telephone of the British prime minister?” asked one woman from Campania, agreeing with the 73-year-old billionaire entrepreneur-prime minister that he was a victim of a politicised judiciary in league with left-wing rivals and newspapers.

Yet in spite of Mr Berlusconi’s problems, the Democratic party is far from confident after being routed in general elections in 2008.

The hardline right-wing Northern League is confident of winning Veneto in the northeast and should it also take Piemonte, and the People of Liberty hold Lombardy, then the Democrats will be wiped out in the north.

Opinion polls indicated the xenophobic Northern League will be the biggest gainers in the elections, possibly taking over 10 per cent of the national vote. Such an outcome would likely exacerbate tensions within the coalition with the Northern League pushing Mr Berlusconi to implement his plan for fiscal federalism giving more financial powers to the regions, but not keen on his ambitions to enhance the political authority of the executive in Rome.

Rivals to Mr Berlusconi are waiting in the wings. Gianfranco Fini, co-founder of the People of Liberty and previous leader of the post-fascist National Alliance, was notably absent from Saturday’s rally, claiming that his position as speaker of parliament prevented him from taking part in election campaigning.

A weak showing for the People of Liberty and a strong turnout for the Northern League is seen as strengthening the hand of Giulio Tremonti, finance minister, in his behind-the-scenes bid to be anointed as Mr Berlusconi’s eventual successor.

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