Defiant Silvio faces key test of popularity in regional polls
Italians went to the polls yesterday in regional elections which are seen as a key test of Silvio Berlusconi's popularity and which could accelerate the unravelling of his ruling party.
The Italian prime minister insisted that he would not step down even if centre-right voters in the two-day elections, which end today, delivered a "Sarkozy-style" rebuff by abstaining. A week ago, the French president suffered a defeat in regional polls.
Mr Berlusconi (73), who was elected with a majority nearly two years ago, said he would complete his five-year term whatever the outcome of the elections, in which 41 million Italians are entitled to vote in 13 of Italy's 20 regions. However, his personal ratings have fallen from 62pc two years ago to 44pc. Early indications were that turnout was down from the last regional elections: 35.6pc had voted by 7pm compared with 42.7pc at the same time five years ago.
Abstentions could encourage a challenge to Mr Berlusconi by Gianfranco Fini, the co-founder of his ruling party, the People of Liberty (PdL), and Speaker of the Lower House. Mr Fini is to start his own movement called Generation Italy in May. There is speculation that he will form an alliance with centre partners..
The PdL is a merger between Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Mr Fini's "post-Fascist" Alleanza Nazionale. Mr Fini has distanced himself from the prime minister, leading 'Il Giornale', the newspaper which is part of Mr Berlusconi's media empire, to accuse Mr Fini of trying to bring him down.
The main election victor in the north is expected to be the anti-immigrant Northern League, which is allied to the PdL in the ruling coalition but is expected to win votes at its expense in Veneto, Piedmont and even Lombardy, Mr Berlusconi's home region.
Attention is also focused on Lazio, the region which includes Rome, which the centre right was expected to win after a scandal involving drugs and transvestite prostitutes brought down Piero Marrazzo, the centre-left president of the region, in October. However, bureaucratic bungles by the PdL in presenting its list of candidates in Lazio and Lombardy added to a sense of disillusionment amid continuing sex and corruption allegations against the prime minister.
The PdL failed to register its candidates on time in Lazio because the party official concerned was on a sandwich break. Mr Berlusconi said the atmosphere was worrying but vowed not to give up.