Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday risked defeat in regional elections that saw record abstention, with his Northern League allies set to win their first two regions and looking more like rivals.
Projections from partial results from the vote in 13 out of Italy’s 20 regions had Berlusconi winning four, the centre left winning six and tying with the right in Lazio (which includes Rome), and the League doing even better than expected at two.
The 73-year-old centre-right premier, two years into a third term ending in 2013, campaigned actively to avoid the low turnout that was seen in this month’s French regional elections, which proved damaging for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
He had also dismissed talk of internal rivalry with the anti-immigrant Northern League, which already has key cabinet posts and could now seek more power within the ruling coalition.
The League was poised to win Piedmont from the centre left as forecast but also to seize Veneto from Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party, according to projections with a quarter of votes counted.
All eyes were on Lazio, where bureaucratic bungling by the PDL excluded its list of candidates for Rome, and Berlusconi’s candidate Renata Polverini was neck-and-neck with centre-left former European Commissioner Emma Bonino.
DISGUST WITH POLITICS
Berlusconi seemed to have suffered from the low turnout, with just 64 percent of the 41 million people eligible voting versus about 72 percent in the last regional vote in 2005.
The premier’s spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, put a brave face on the partial results, saying victory in four regions “would mean we had doubled the number of regions versus five years ago”.
The centre left, trounced by Berlusconi in the national election in 2008, managed to hang on to its strongholds in central Italy by the skin of its teeth.
But the high level of abstention suggested disaffection with politics in general, according to analysts who cited candidates’ failure to address issues of most concern, like unemployment and the economic crisis, as well as the PDL’s bungling in Lazio and a recent corruption scandal involving a top Berlusconi aide.
“We are all a bit disgusted. I don’t have much of an opinion, but it’s clear they talked little about content and a lot about political infighting, which hasn’t pleased anyone,” said Rome voter Armando Rizzo.
After a turbulent 2009 for Berlusconi marked by a divorce, prostitution scandals and legal battles to keep him out of court on corruption charges, he is now being investigated for allegedly trying to shut down TV talk shows critical of him.
A poor result could tempt Berlusconi to spend his way back to favour. But his Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti enjoys the support of the League, whose gains could underpin his role as guardian of a strict line on spending that has stopped Italy’s fiscal position deteriorating as badly as its neighbours.
(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri and Ella Ide; editing by Dominic Evans)