Poor showing in mayoral votes bad news for Italy's Berlusconi

13:31, May 18, 2011      

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By Eric J. Lyman

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, already crippled by three open court cases, a sluggish economy, and anemic approval levels, received another blow this week when his hand-picked candidate for mayor in Milan performed much worse than expected.

In Italy, local and regional elections are often seen as proxies for determining national support levels. That was especially the case in the latest vote, which took place Sunday and Monday: the election attracted around double normal budget levels for advertising and campaign events, and an unusual amount of media attention, and the added weight of serving as a barometer of Berlusconi's support levels.

Berlusconi, who lives in Milan, campaigned for Letizia Moratti, the incumbent. In the end, Moratti finished a distant second to Giuliano Pisapia, a successful corporate lawyer and a former member of parliament. Moratti, who won with 67.6 percent of the vote five years ago, polled just 41.6 percent this time, compared to 48.1 percent for Pisapia. Turnout was about the same as in 2006.

Neither reached the 50 percent threshold needed for an outright win, and so a second round will be scheduled for May 29.

But even if Moratti managed to leap Pisapia in the polls and pull out a victory in that vote, the poor performance in the first around is almost as bitter as an outright defeat for an incumbent mayor with the strong support of a sitting prime minister.

Pollsters say the results are bad news for Berlusconi, and cracks in his support levels are already starting to show.

In the wake of the disappointing vote, Umberto Bossi, the head of the Northern League and the current government coalition's main partner, criticized the way the election was handled and Berlusconi immediately went on the defense in an attempt at damage control.

Votes in other cities were less dramatic and less poignant. But there was still little good news for Berlusconi's Popolo della Liberta, which saw its best big city results in Naples, a city run by parties opposed to Berlusconi's coalition since 1993 and suffering through the fourth year of a protracted garbage collection crisis that has raised an array of environmental and health concerns -- two facts that should have been plenty for Berlusconi's center-right party to sweep to an easy victory.

The best news for Berlusconi in this latest round was that, even though his allies performed worse than expected, no single party rose up to fill the void, leaving Berlusconi's grip on power weaker but still without a major rival.

That will not change after the runoff, but Berlusconi's luck could still get worse if the results in two weeks' time are poor enough to spark further fractures among his supporters.

Source: Xinhua
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