Graft scandals and bureaucratic bungling by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party appeared to put a damper on turnout, which could favour the opposition, as Italians voted on Sunday in regional elections.
“Recent episodes of corruption and the risk of unemployment keep voters away,” Nando Pagnoncelli of polling firm IPSOS said as polls opened across the country for the two-day vote.
More than 41 million people are eligible to vote for the governors of 13 of Italy’s 20 regions, as well as heads of four provinces and nearly 500 town halls. Voting ends at 3 p.m. local time (1300 GMT) on Monday.
Berlusconi denied any threat from junior coalition partner the Northern League, which could gain ground in the north, but urged supporters to avoid the low turnout of this month’s French regional vote that was damaging for President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The first official data on turnout, measured at midday on Sunday, showed a drop of nearly 3 percentage points versus the same stage in voting during the last regional vote five years ago, when 71.5 percent of eligible voters turned out in total.
“The only possible way to read these first numbers is that turnout will be 10 points below five years ago, at 62 percent or maximum 65 percent,” said pollster Nicola Piepoli, quoted by Ansa news agency, adding that “abstention favours the left”.
The 73-year-old premier has said his nearly two-year-old government would not see major changes whatever the outcome of the vote. His third term in office is due to end in 2013.
Casting his vote in Milan, the prime minister spoke of the tense atmosphere in Italian politics in recent months, which saw him attacked by a mentally instable man late last year and a letter bomb sent to the Northern League explode on Saturday.
“I hope that hatred does not prevail over love,” said the media tycoon and owner of AC Milan soccer club.
Pollsters say rising unemployment is the top concern for 79 percent of Italians and expect the centre right to keep control of the Lombardy and Veneto regions in the industrial north and win over Calabria and possibly Campania in the poorer south.
The centre left, ousted from power by Berlusconi in the 2008 national election, should hold on to at least five regions, four of them in its traditional central heartland — Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria, Marche — and Basilicata in the south.
Four other regions — including Piedmont and the Lazio region which contains Rome — are too close to call.
Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) party suffered a big setback by missing a deadline for registering its list of candidates for Rome, handicapping its contender for governor of Lazio, Renata Polverini, against former European Commissioner Emma Bonino.
The prime minister appealed and lost, blaming “communist” judges whom he accuses of persecuting him with corruption charges since he first entered politics in the early 1990s.
After a turbulent 2009 for Berlusconi marked by his divorce, prostitution scandals and legal battles to keep him out of court on corruption charges, the premier is now being investigated for allegedly trying to shut down TV talk shows critical of him.
In addition to that, a top aide who directed rescue efforts after last April’s earthquake in L’Aquila is accused of graft.
Analysts say these factors could affect the result and the balance of power in his coalition. The anti-immigrant Northern League, which already has key cabinet posts, could rob votes in the industrial north from Berlusconi’s party.
Polls saw the League winning in Veneto, neck and neck with the centre left in Piedmont and performing so well in Lombardy that League leader Umberto Bossi talked openly this week about one day replacing the PDL’s current mayor of Milan.
A strong showing for the League could also weaken Gianfranco Fini, the lower house speaker seen as a possible successor to Berlusconi. His National Alliance merged with Berlusconi’s PDL last year but he often criticises the government.
Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti is close to the League and denied any internal rivalry. He has clashed with other ministers for refusing to spend big money to help Italy out of its worst recession since World War Two — a stance credited with sparing Italy the fiscal crisis now rocking some European neighbours.
Tremonti looked forward to the period after the vote when “we will have three years without elections, a great opportunity to get things done like we have never seen in Italy”.
(Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Paul Casciato)