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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Italy: Berlusconi 'Massacred' in Regional Elections

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi votes in the regional elections in Milan April 3, 2005....

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a crushing defeat at Italian regional elections, official results showed on Monday, a huge boost for center-left leader Romano Prodi's hopes of unseating him next year.

In what one of his defeated regional governors described as a "massacre," Berlusconi's center-right coalition appeared to have lost 11 of the 13 regions at stake, holding on to just two -- Lombardy and Veneto -- both in its stronghold in the north.

Prodi, who had said he would be satisfied by winning just one new seat, was delighted by his landslide victory.

"Today we have easily won in terms of the number of votes and the number of regions," he told a news conference.

"With this vote Italians are asking us to prepare to govern, to take the country forward."

The death of Pope John Paul on Saturday overshadowed the election but did not keep voters away. Turnout reached 71.4 percent, down just 1.7 percentage points from the last one.

Berlusconi had prepared his supporters for a poor result, saying he expected a mid-term backlash due to Italy's economic woes. But the outcome was far worse than expected.

Although the final count would not be finished until Tuesday, late preliminary results indicated the center-left had wrested six regions from government parties, giving it control of 15 of Italy's 20 regions.

Berlusconi made no comment, but Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, head of the right-wing National Alliance (AN) party, said the defeat was a bad omen for next year's general election.

"We need a lot of humility and great seriousness and them maybe the result in 2006 can still go the way of the center-right," he told talk show on RAI television.

"The government is weaker politically but that does not mean we will resign."


Some opposition figures disagreed. "Berlusconi should draw the right conclusions and not prolong the agony for another year," said left-wing parliamentarian Antonio di Pietro.

A defeat in regional elections in 2000 prompted the then prime minister, the center-left's Massimo D'Alema, to step down -- ultimately making way for Berlusconi's rise.

Berlusconi ruled out resigning early even before the polls opened, saying he would see out his five-year mandate as the longest-serving premier in post-war Italian history.

The center-right appeared to have lost all three regions which parties and pundits saw as the most crucial: Puglia in the south, Lazio in the center and, probably, Piedmont in the north.

The defeat is the latest and most serious in a string of electoral setbacks for Berlusconi in local elections which have dented the premier's standing since taking power in 2001.

Francesco Storace, the pugnacious center-right president of the Rome region Lazio, said the results around the country had been "a massacre" for the center-right.

Prior to the vote, Storace said defeat in Lazio would herald a center-left general election victory. "If we lose in Lazio the successor to Berlusconi can only be Prodi."

Storace, from Fini's AN party, said he would not ask for a re-vote despite a controversy over a rival's alleged use of false signatures on electoral documents.

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of wartime dictator Benito Mussolini, was initially barred from the election but then readmitted by an appeals court.

"The verdict should rest with the voters, not the lawyers," Storace said. The margin of his defeat suggested he would have lost even if Mussolini had not divided the right-wing vote.

A fourteenth region, Basilicata, which is held by the center-left, will vote on April 17-18.

Robin Pomeroy and Gavin Jones


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