Berlusconi to come under pressure in regional ballot

PREMIER Silvio Berlusconi faces a significant test in regional voting to be held across Italy tomorrow and on Monday — and danger is all around him.

PREMIER Silvio Berlusconi faces a significant test in regional voting to be held across Italy tomorrow and on Monday — and danger is all around him.

The conservative premier is coming off a lacklustre period that has seen his approval rating fall amid a lingering economic crisis, a corruption scandal and an investigation into his alleged attempts to influence TV coverage.

Going into the election, he fights not just an emboldened centre-left opposition but the risk of disaffected voters deserting the polls. And some of his own allies are looking to make significant gains at the expense of the premier’s party.

Whatever the outcome, “it’s not going to bring the government down. Berlusconi’s majority is there and he’s not the resigning type”, said James Walston, a professor at the American University of Rome. “But there’s going to be a sort of OK Corral some time in April.”

Voting will be held in 13 of Italy’s 20 regions, as well as in a handful of cities.

Almost two years into Berlusconi’s current premiership, the balloting is significant because some 41 million Italians — out of a population of 60 million — are eligible to cast votes.

Berlusconi hopes to effectively renew his mandate through a strong popular endorsement.

The opposition Democratic Party wants to reverse years of sagging fortunes and bolster its leadership credentials.

Berlusconi’s allies also have an agenda. The Northern League, which might become the largest vote-getter in some areas, hopes that a strong showing might earn it more power, and possibly more ministers, in the national government.

Gianfranco Fini, the charismatic speaker of the lower house of parliament, hopes to further establish his credentials as a successor to the 73-year-old Berlusconi as conservative leader.

Fini has kept a low profile during the campaign, but the recent launch of his new movement — called Generation Italy — was read as a challenge to Berlusconi’s leadership.

The embattled premier has done what he always does at times of difficulty — turn on the charm and go on the offensive.

He has stepped up media appearances, called a rally that brought tens of thousands of his supporters onto the streets of Rome and travelled up and down Italy to support his candidates.

Berlusconi has been urging his supporters to go to the polls, to avert the low turnout that marked recent balloting in France and was seen to hurt President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Still, low turnout is likely because the campaign has failed to address Italians’ concerns, such as job losses, said Nando Pagnoncelli, head of the Ipsos polling institute in Italy.

“This leads many Italians to think that politics does not deal with their problems,” Pagnoncelli said. “Corruption increases this sense of disaffection.”

A corruption probe involving building contracts for last year’s G8 summit in Italy has implicated Berlusconi’s powerful disaster czar, who denies wrongdoing.

Berlusconi has mixed bold promises with attacks on his rivals, but in some cases the strategy has backfired.

A pledge to defeat cancer in three years drew widespread criticism, with some accusing the premier of being irresponsible and others noting that funds destined for scientific research had been cut.

In another instance, Berlusconi denigrated the looks of a female opposition candidate, drawing accusations of sexism. The Italian premier suggested Mercedes Bresso was “always in a bad mood” because she had to look at herself in the mirror to put on her make-up in the morning. “So her day is already ruined,” he said in northern Turin.

Berlusconi is known for his fondness for young attractive women. He got entangled in a sex scandal last year for his alleged dalliances with young women, and his second wife is now divorcing him.

Going into the election, the centre-right holds two northern regions and is expected to keep them: Veneto, which includes Venice, and Lombardy, which includes financial capital Milan.

The conservatives hope to snatch away two regions currently held by the centre-left: Campania, where the government worked to clean up the chronic garbage pileup in Naples, and Calabria, a poor region in the south.

Originally, the conservatives had set the more ambitious goal of winning six regions overall.

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