Berlusconi faces popularity contest in local elections

ITALIANS flocked to the polls in the second day of partial local elections seen as a major test of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s popularity, as he fights a slew of legal and sex trials.

All eyes are on Milan, Berlusconi’s centre-right stronghold and hometown, where the incumbent, Letizia Moratti, is expected to retain her post, though she may not have enough votes to avoid a runoff later this month.

The 74-year-old prime minister has campaigned vigorously on Moratti’s behalf in the city, even heading the electoral list there.

While his term is not due to expire until 2013, Berlusconi barely scraped through a confidence vote in December and has been plagued by accusations of having sex with an underage prostitute and using his authority to cover it up.

Currently a defendant in three trials in Milan, Berlusconi’s popularity reached a record low of 31% in a recent survey.

About a quarter of Italy’s 49 million-strong voters are eligible to cast ballots, with weak growth, unemployment and local issues uppermost in their minds.

The elections involve 1,310 communal administrations — around 16% of the total — including Bologna, Naples and Turin in addition to Milan. Centre-left incumbents are expected to hold on to the traditionally “red” cities of Bologna and Turin.

Naples is less certain as it faces yet another waste disposal crisis. Local authorities and the central government have failed to fix the city’s problems, prompting Berlusconi to dispatch military troops to the region to help clean up. The outcome in Naples will likely hinge on the second-round run-off, with a second round set for May 29 and 30.


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