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Page last updated at 12:50 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 13:50 UK

Regional poll boosts Berlusconi ally

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Cartoon of Silvio Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi, courtesy of Corriere della Sera
Cartoon of Silvio Berlusconi and Umberto Bossi, courtesy of Corriere della Sera

A cartoon in the Italian daily, Corriere Della Sera, neatly sums up the outcome of the country's regional election results.

It shows Umberto Bossi, the leader of the federalist Northern League Party dressed as a knight riding on the back of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, who, in turn, is trying to control the horse they are both on.

What it means is that the results of the 13 contested regions show Mr Berlusconi is still in the political saddle, but his handicap has been increased with the extra weight of a demanding coalition partner.

That is not to say Mr Berlusconi has become a mere whipping boy of the League. Far from it.

He has surprised a lot of people in these elections, himself probably included.

Before the ballot, pundits were suggesting that, at most, his centre-right coalition might pick up one or two regions.

Instead he gained four, all at the expense of the centre-left, taking his tally to six and slashing theirs to seven.

Low turn-out

The commentators had suggested Mr Berlusconi might be mauled by voters, angry at his failure to concentrate on their issues - like unemployment and the battered economy - and not his ones, which included controversies that ranged from corruption investigations into a senior aide, to claims he tried to pull unfriendly TV talk-shows off air (denied).

So why did the voters punish him less than the centre-left?

Well, it seems that the punishment was confined to abstention, rather than party swapping.

Silvio Berlusconi with Lazio centre-right candidate Renata Polverini at an election rally, 26 March 2010
Renata Polverini (l) won Lazio for the centre-right in a tight race

The relatively low turnout, just like the advances made by the Northern League, has been one of the stories of these elections.

Overall it was down around 8%, to about 64%, compared with the 2005 elections. It has not been that low for 15 years.

So, hardly a ringing endorsement for Mr Berlusconi, and it will rein in his ability to talk about a "mandate" for his next three years in office.

But it has been a victory, nonetheless.

His People of Freedom Party (PDL) will especially relish taking Lazio, the region that includes Rome.

It was here during the campaign that politics momentarily turned to farce, when one of Mr Berlusconi's party officials failed to hand in their candidate list on time.

In an episode that will enter Italian political folklore, newspapers reported that the gentleman concerned had popped out to get himself a sandwich and lost track of the time.

True or not, it created a political and legal furore that had Mr Berlusconi reaching for the statute books to try to get his people reinstated in the fight.

He partially lost that battle, though his sponsored candidate for governor of the region, Renata Polverini, was allowed to run and duly delivered him a gossamer-thin victory over the former European Union Commissioner, Emma Bonino, in an all-female nail biter.

Political bombast

Mr Berlusconi also picked up Calabria and Campania, both in the south.

But in the north, it was his allies, the Northern League, who cemented their hold in their heartland and with it a likely greater slice of the action within Mr Berlusconi's cabinet.

The League picked up Veneto, as expected, but also edged a win in Piedmont at the expense of the centre-left.

His victories prompted Mr Bossi to indulge in his favourite pastime of political bombast.

Umberto Bossi (r) and his son Renzo in Milan, 29 March 2010
Umberto Bossi (r) has promised federalism

"The left no longer exists in the north," came his clarion cry, adding, for good measure, that, "the people want federalism and we will give it to them quickly."

Gone are the days when the League openly called for independence, though privately, many of its supporters still dream of one day living in Padania, the name of their would-be autonomous region.

Their progress in the elections will not mean Italy is about to be formally carved up into a north-south divide, but Mr Berlusconi will almost certainly have to pay a price for their continued support and loyalty in government.

The League's additional prominence will also play into the equation being worked on by one of Mr Berlusocni's potential rivals, Gianfranco Fini.

Mr Fini, the President of Italy's lower house of parliament, is always named as a likely successor in a post-Berlusconi world.

A more influential Northern League is not to Mr Fini's liking and that may embolden him to act sooner rather than later.

Centre-left woes

As for the centre-left, they will once again go away and wonder where it all went wrong.

What should have been an easy target for them to coalesce around (Mr Berlusconi) has again failed to boost them.

Familiar explanations will no doubt be paraded: they are divided, unnatural allies faced with a prime minister who controls much of the media.

A coalition of self- - not united - interests, behind a decent, but frankly colourless leader, Pier Luigi Bersani.

One commentator said that the centre-left has not yet lost enough elections to bring it to a point where it wakes up and gets its act together.

There might be some truth in that.

For now, it leaves Silvio Berlusconi's domination of politics intact, if a little diluted by the Northern League's performance.

No amount of controversy, it seems, can deny Mr Berlusconi victory.

Despite the best efforts of newspapers, Mr Berlusconi is no cartoon character.

Now the election dust has settled, where he leads, Italy will still willingly, or less willingly, follow.



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