Mon May 16, 2011 7:54pm EDT
* Party set for run-off in Berlusconi‘s powerbase of Milan
* Centre-left sweeps Turin, on course to win Bologna
By Silvia Aloisi
ROME, May 17 – Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was left “surprised and saddened” after his centre-right bloc lost ground in local elections in a string of Italian cities and was forced to trail in a run-off in the financial capital Milan.
With 90 percent of votes counted late on Monday, Milan’s centre-right mayor Letizia Moratti had 41.5 percent support against 48.1 percent for her rival Giuliano Pisapia, giving the left a chance for an historic win in the run-off vote in two weeks’ time.
“He is saddened, surprised and saddened. He did not expect a result like this,” the premier’s aides told Italian news agency ANSA. Berlusconi’s spokesman said he would not comment publicly on the ballot outcome until final results on Tuesday.
Berlusconi had campaigned frenetically for an outright win in Milan, his home town and power base which the centre-right has dominated for nearly 20 years.
The surprise results point to a second round on May 29-30, giving the centre-left its best chance since 1993 of winning the city where Berlusconi built his business empire and later launched his political career.
His main ally, the pro-devolution Northern League, fared worse than expected in its own heartland — a factor likely to complicate already strained relations with Berlusconi.
“I didn’t expect this (in Milan) but the game is not over yet,” said Roberto Calderoli, a government minister and senior League official.
The centre-left swept Turin and was heading for a first-round victory in its stronghold of Bologna, while Berlusconi’s PDL party was ahead in Naples.
The four cities were the most important contests in the elections in 1,310 towns and 11 provinces, a crucial test for Berlusconi midway through his term.
“The wind in the north is blowing against the PDL and the League,” said Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the largest opposition party, the PD.
SCANDALS HIT BERLUSCONI
Four concurrent trials, including one on charges that Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute, have pushed his approval rating to about 30 percent, the lowest since he swept to power for the third time in 2008.
The premier, who denies all charges and accuses politically biased magistrates of hounding him, appeared in court on Monday in a hearing into bribery charges as the vote was under way.
Berlusconi is also taking the heat for failing to revive Italy’s chronically low growth. The economy expanded just 0.1 percent in the first three months of the year, well below rates in Germany, France and even crisis-hit Greece.
The League, which is vital for Berlusconi’s survival after a split in the ruling PDL party last year, has marked its distance from the premier on several issues in recent weeks, notably opposing Italy’s involvement in the NATO bombing of Libya.
The League had hoped to cash in on Berlusconi’s weakness, but it failed to boost its share of the vote in the big cities. In Milan and Turin it won less than 10 percent support.
Not everything was good news for the bitterly divided centre-left opposition, however.
In Milan, the PD only belatedly rallied behind frontrunner Pisapia, who was not its designated candidate. In Naples, where a long-running garbage crisis has embarrassed the centre-left local authorities, its man was overshadowed by a leftist outsider and will be excluded from the run-off. (editing by David Stamp)