Final returns show Berlusconi wins 2 close races in regional vote, emerges as overall winner

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Berlusconi scores political victory in local vote

ROME — Premier Silvio Berlusconi emerged as the victor in regional elections held across Italy and widely depicted as a test of his popularity, final returns showed Tuesday.

Berlusconi’s coalition won crucial races and wrested control of four regions from the opposition. The Northern League, an anti-immigration party and government ally, also fared very strongly, and will likely see its national influence significantly increase.

Overall, the conservatives won six regions — compared with the two they controlled going into the vote — while the center-left opposition held on to seven.

For Berlusconi, the success means a strong popular endorsement for the remaining three years of his mandate. It gives the Italian leader momentum to push through controversial reforms, including overhauling the justice system.

“This result is the best recognition for the work done by the government,” Berlusconi said, and an encouragement “to carry out, in this second half of the legislature, reforms that are necessary to modernize the country.”

The most resounding success for Berlusconi came overnight in two races that went down to the wire: Lazio, which includes the capital; and Piedmont, a big region in the country’s industrial north. Both were previously held by the opposition.

Final turnout stood at 64 percent — high by the standards of many Western democracies, but 8 percent down from the last Italian regional elections in 2005. Around 41 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the country of 60 million.

Analysts had predicted that a low turnout would hurt the governing power — as it did with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in recent regional balloting in France.

But Berlusconi repeatedly urged his supporters to go to the polls ahead of the vote Sunday and Monday. In the last couple of weeks, the 73-year-old premier went on the offensive and stepped up his campaign through numerous media appearances and a big rally in Rome.

In the end, the voters who deserted the polls appeared to come from both sides.

Almost two years into his current premiership, Berlusconi appeared vulnerable coming into the election, making his success all the more significant. His popularity has been falling as Italians grow concerned by job losses, frightened by the country’s economic future and increasingly detached from a political class mired in corruption scandals.

The electoral campaign was dominated by judicial probes and legal wrangling over the list of Berlusconi’s candidates, adding to a sentiment of disaffection toward politics.

“Nobody would have been surprised if Berlusconi had lost the regional elections,” one of Italy’s leading political analysts, Stefano Folli, wrote in the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

“But Berlusconi maneuvered with his usual dexterity through a mean electoral campaign,” Folli wrote. “And he even managed to avoid the trap of a record-low turnout.”

The anti-immigrant Northern League became the largest vote-getter in some areas in the north.

Nationwide, it garnered almost 13 percent of the vote — more than doubling its result from the previous regional election. Analysts say the Northern League drew some voters away from Berlusconi’s own party, which was down nationwide to 26.7 percent from over 31 percent in the last regional balloting.

This will give the Northern League and its maverick leader Umberto Bossi, whose 21-year son was elected on a local council, a bigger say at the national government, and likely more ministers.

The League is expected to push for tougher line on immigration — which the party links to street crime — and more autonomy for regions in the north.

The center-left opposition kept regions, such as Tuscany and Umbria, that are part of its traditional stronghold. But the main Democratic Party had some of its vote eroded by more radical left-wing groups, and saw the Northern League make progress in its own backyard — among blue-collar workers in traditionally leftist regions.

The Democratic Party has been trying to reverse years of sagging fortunes and strengthen its leadership. But amid internal squabbling and the lack of a clear platform, it hasn’t been able so far to present Italians with an attractive enough alternative.

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