Berlusconi’s party making gains in regional elections across Italy

By Alessandra Rizzo, AP
Monday, March 29, 2010

Berlusconi’s party making gains in Italian vote

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s party made gains in regional elections across Italy and held off a major challenge by the center-left opposition, according to projections and partial returns Monday.

The early figures at the end of two days of balloting show that Berlusconi’s conservatives held onto the two regions they controlled and snatched two away from the opposition.

The election was seen as an important test for Berlusconi. The premier, two years into the current government, has urged Italians to show their backing for him. Berlusconi is coming off a lackluster period that has seen his approval rating fall. He hopes that a strong showing will effectively renew his mandate and give him momentum to push through controversial reforms, including overhauling the justice system.

For the main opposition Democratic Party, a good result would invigorate its leadership and embolden it in its challenge to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s forces were neck-and-neck with the opposition in two crucial races that will be very significant in assessing the overall result of the voting: Lazio, the region that includes the capital, and Piedmont in the country’s industrial north. Both regions were held by the opposition, and the conservatives hope to take them over.

The center-left opposition will likely hold onto seven regions, including Tuscany and Umbria, which are part of its traditional stronghold, according to the projections and returns. Final returns were not expected until Tuesday with the winner in Lazio and Piedmont expected to go down to the wire.

A total of 13 regions were up for grabs. Going into the vote, Berlusconi’s coalition controlled two and the opposition 11.

“No side will have to lick its wounds tomorrow,” said Paolo Mieli, a political analysts for Corriere della Sera. “But the center-right was coming into the vote more vulnerable, so they have more reason to be satisfied.”

Berlusconi stepped up his campaign in the last couple of weeks. The premier rallied his supporters to a big demonstration in Rome, made numerous media appearances and went on the offensive against his rivals, branding the center-left an undemocratic force unfit for government.

Voter turnout stood at 65 percent — high by the standards of many Western democracies, but 7 percent lower than the last Italian regional elections in 2005. Around 41 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the country of 60 million.

An electoral campaign dominated by scandals and legal wrangling over list registrations has added to a growing sentiment of disaffection toward politics. Analysts note that politicians failed to focus on what most concerns Italian citizens: the fear of job loss amid the lingering economic crisis.

“I always used to vote. This is the first time that I didn’t,” 45-year-old Rome security guard Bruno Vedovato said. “I’m just sick and tired of the whole situation as nothing ever changes.”

The Northern League fared very well in the north, in some cases getting the most votes at the expenses of Berlusconi’s own party. This will likely translate into a bigger influence — and possibly more ministers — on the national government.

The conservative coalition held the regions of Veneto, where the Northern League candidate had a landslide, and Lombardy, where the incumbent governor won easily, according to early returns. They snatched away Campania, where the government worked to clean up the chronic garbage pileup in Naples, and Calabria, a poor region in the south, the figures said.

In Lazio, the race was marred by a registration mix up that prevented a list of Berlusconi candidates from running. But the center-left also had to overcome its own problems as the center-left governor quit in shame last year amid a scandal of cocaine and transsexual prostitutes. Turnout in Lazio dropped about 10 percent — more than it did nationwide and among the sharpest drops across the country.

The race pits former right-wing union leader Renata Polverini against Emma Bonino, a veteran politician and former EU commissioner known for abortion and euthanasia rights positions that make her persona non grata at the Vatican.

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