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Italian regional elections update

March 29, 2010

Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition was on course last night to capture possibly four regions from the centre-left opposition in fiercely contested elections marked by a low turnout and big gains for the anti-immigration Northern League allied to the centre-right prime minister.

After two days of voting for 13 of Italy’s 20 regions, partial results showed Mr Berlusconi’s coalition heading for victory in possibly six regions, with the centre-left hanging on to seven.

The outcome in Lazio, the central region containing Rome, was extremely close but the centre-right candidate, Renata Polverini, was claiming victory shortly before midnight over the opposition’s Emma Bonino, former EU commissioner.

The opposition Democratic party under Pierluigi Bersani, its fourth leader in two years, appeared to have staved off a total defeat, claiming that at least it had improved its share of the vote following its losses in European elections last year and national polls in 2008.

But the real winners in the election were seen as the “no vote” by some 35 per cent of Italians who stayed away, and the hardline Northern League which is allied to Mr Berlusconi but has proved to be a difficult coalition partner in the past.

The striking gains of the League in the north — where it convincingly won Veneto, captured Piemonte from the Democrats and polled well in Lombardy — came at the expense of the two main parties and could change the balance of power within Mr Berlusconi’s coalition.

Ilvo Diamanti, professor of politics at the university of Urbino, noted the League had also made gains in centre-left strongholds in central Italy, presenting itself as the party of security that had gained most from fears of workers at the process of globalisation. The League was now both “ally and competitor” for Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, he commented.

For Andrea Romano, head of the Italia Futura think-tank, the turnout of 65 per cent, perhaps a post-war low, showed that Italians were falling in line with the rest of Europe by rejecting outright what the main parties offered. Speaking before the Lazio outcome was clear, he called the results a blow to Mr Berlusconi and “very bad” for the Democrats who had been wiped out in the north.

“Nothing catastrophic will happen to the government. The coalition will not fall apart as there is no real alternative to Berlusconi, but it does not strengthen him,” Mr Romano said.

Sandro Gozi, member of parliament for the Democrats, conceded that the Democrats had failed to renew themselves. “Voters are fed up with the same faces and the same speeches of the last 15 years. We have a long way to go. We are not ready to offer the competitive alternative that this country needs,” he told the Financial Times.

With three years to go in his third stint as prime minister, Mr Berlusconi had sought a convincing endorsement to push through controversial reforms, including a strengthening of the powers of the executive. But his campaign was overshadowed by his party’s bungling of its registration of candidates in Lazio, and the prime minister’s own battles with the courts, where he faces two corruption-related trials and is under investigation for suspected attempts to censor state television.

Despite these controversies, the prime minister’s People of Liberty captured Campania and Calabria from the Democrats in the south. But winning Lazio, if confirmed by final results, would represent a bigger prize.

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