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Low regional poll turnout worries Berlusconi

March 29, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome March 29 2010

Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire prime minister, transformed Italy’s regional elections into a vote of confidence in his two-year-old centre-right government, but a low turnout on the first of two days of polls has sent alarm bells ringing among his supporters.

“A few hours remaining to stop the Left,” ran the banner headline in Il Giornale, part of the Berlusconi family media empire, lamenting the high rate of absenteeism and reminding readers that they had until 3pm on Monday to cast their votes.

Turnout at the end of the first day of voting was reported at 47.1 per cent of the 41m Italians eligible to cast their ballots in elections for 13 of Italy’s 20 regions. This compared with 55.9 per cent after the first day in the 2005 regional elections, which finished with a total turnout of 71.5 per cent.

Commentators said a low turnout was historically bad news for the centre-right and would benefit the centre-left opposition but also the hardline anti-immigrant Northern League, which is an uneasy partner in Mr Berlusconi’s coalition government and contesting two regions in the north.

Lazio, the hotly contested region around Rome, reported the largest fall in turnout – nearly 12 percentage points – at the close on Sunday.

Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party had entertained high hopes of capturing the region from the centre-left – after the previous governor resigned in disgrace over a sex and drugs scandal – but the centre-right messed up the registration of its candidates.

Voters were left confused and with an impression of incompetence in spite of Mr Berlusconi’s attempts to blame the bungling on the centre-left opposition and the courts.

Conditions have hardly been fortuitous for the 73-year-old billionaire media mogul. The economy is only just limping out of recession, close aides are under investigation for corruption in assigning state construction contracts and the prime minister is suspected of trying to censor state television amid a wider conflict with the judiciary.

But such is the weakness of the centre-left opposition Democratic party – testing out its fourth leader in two years – that it will count itself fortunate if it does not lose more than two of the 11 regions it holds at present.

The results could determine whether a government with solid popular support presses ahead with economic reforms or a weakened Berlusconi spends his remaining three years in office fighting internal divisions and the inevitable succession battle.

Il Giornale on Monday gave a hint of the unfolding power struggle, saying Mr Berlusconi “often feels alone” with a party that had not “digested” the merger last year of his Forza Italia and the post-fascist National Alliance led by Gianfranco Fini, who the daily said had been too absent from the electoral campaign.

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