Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s name and face were hardly visible in the 2010 election campaign

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Berlusconi keeps low profile
in Italian regional elections

By James Walston, Wanted in Rome

24 March 2010: All local elections give politicians and pundits a feel of what a country is thinking and are often just treated as a barometer for the government; but the regional elections in 13 out of Italy’s 20 regions on 28 and 29 March 2010 are much more than a glorified opinion poll. They will distribute real power over key political resources such as health, education and industry as well as a lot of jobs. Their outcome will also directly affect key issues such as the economic recovery and the way corruption is dealt with.

For these elections, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s name and face are hardly visible in the campaign. He does not feature on the posters and has kept a very low profile with almost no appearances on the stump. He has made it very clear that whatever the results, there will be no change in the government.

In regional elections in 2000 Massimo D’Alema staked his premiership on the outcome and lost, and in 2005, when Berlusconi was prime minister, the centre-right suffered a heavy defeat. This is not likely this year but there could be some surprises; in the north the right-wing Lega Nord is very probably going to do well and in some places Umberto Bossi’s party might overtake Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL). Hence the prime minister’s unusual absence from the limelight; he can brush off any setbacks saying they have nothing to do with national government.

The other national leaders are all very much in evidence. Pier Luigi Bersani, secretary of the main opposition Partito Democratico (PD), smiles out from hoardings offering “another Italy”. Antonio Di Pietro, leader of Italia dei Valori (IdV), also smiles from his posters promising to “create future work, economy, finance”. A sterner Pier Ferdinando Casini of the centrist Unione di Centro (UdC) says he will “choose only the best” – candidates for his party, presumably. Bossi claims that “the League doesn’t abandon you”. But they are not standing; the elections are for the hundreds of candidates who have plastered walls throughout Italy with posters of themselves with what they hope is an inveigling expression.

The most important are naturally the prospective regional presidents, now usually called governatori in imitation of American states’ governors. Here in Lazio there are two women candidates, both with a long experience in politics.

 On the right, and the first to put her hat in the ring, is Renata Polverini, former general secretary of the right-wing trade union Unione Generale del Lavoro (UGL). She is on the liberal wing of the PdL and is supported by the speaker of the chamber of deputies, or lower house of parliament, Gianfranco Fini. This gives her some of Fini’s prestige but is a disadvantage when there are open rifts between him and Berlusconi. One of the two critical newspaper investigations about her came from Libero, a strong Berlusconi supporter, which accused her of producing an inflated membership in the UGL when she was at the helm. The other was from the opposition Il Fatto Quotidiano, which maintains that she evaded tax on a house purchase. Her biggest supporting party, the PdL, risks not being allowed on the ballot in the province of Rome because it missed the deadline for the presentation of candidates. In Lombardy too, the centre-right has run into problems for not following the rules for presenting candidatures.

On the other side is Emma Bonino, a longstanding member of the Partito Radicale and close to the party’s founder, Marco Pannella. She has served as a member of both houses of parliament and as a government minister in Italy, as a member of the European parliament and as a European commissioner; her political positions have remained constant but she has been elected in both centre-left and centre-right coalitions. There are no skeletons in her closet but her dalliance on the right does not make her popular in some areas of the left, and her secular positions on abortion and euthanasia make her anathema to many Catholics.

Bonino stepped into the Lazio candidacy while the mainstream centre-left parties were trying to work out what to do after the previous president of the region, the RAI journalist Piero Marrazzo of PD, was caught in a sting operation with a transsexual prostitute in October and subsequently resigned. In the ensuing months, neither the PD nor Di Pietro’s IdV did anything to find a suitable candidate. The president of Rome province, the very successful Nicola Zingaretti of PD, was approached but decided to stay put until a more auspicious moment. So when Bonino said she would stand, there were no objections as most of the party heavyweights thought that Lazio was lost. Since then the gap between Polverini and Bonino has narrowed with one poll even giving the latter a small lead.

The confusion over candidates and lack of a generally accepted way of choosing them characterised the early part of the campaign. At first the centre-left came off the worst with uncertainty and untimely and unsightly competition between candidates, especially in Puglia and Campania. In the first the PD tried to oust the very popular Communist incumbent, Nichi Vendola, only to have to eat humble pie after he won a convincing victory in local primary elections. In the second, Di Pietro accepted a PD candidate under investigation for corruption even though he has always fought to keep indicted candidates out.

In some regions there has been grubby horse-trading to widen coalitions so that the UdC with a possible six per cent of the vote is running with the left in some places, the right in others and alone in still others.

More recently, the debate has centered on corruption scandals, which are threatening the whole system. One involves the civil protection boss, Guido Bertolaso, and all the public works contracts he manages; the other is about money laundering and vote rigging and involves the Fastweb and Telecom telephone providers along with a senator from Calabria.

As for the results, two regions, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Lombardy, are centre-right and will not change. The four central regions of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and the Marche and Basilicata in the south will stay centre-left. The other six are potential changes; Piedmont and Liguria could be held by the left while Campania, Lazio, Puglia and Calabria are marginal tending right. Most people on the left reckon that if they lose only four regions it will be an honourable defeat.

Partito Democratico, Italy's main opposition party, and its allies retained power in seven regions

Update: 30 March 2010
Berlusconi’s coalition wins regional elections
Italy’s centre-right coalition made gains in regional and local elections held on 28 and 29 March. The coalition, which unites Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) and the anti-immigration Northern League, took control of the southern regions of Calabria and Cantabria, as well as Rome's Lazio region and the northern Piedmont region. In northern Italy, The Northern League of Umberto Bossi took votes off the PDL to become the strongest party in Veneto.

The centre-left opposition retained power in seven regions including its Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna strongholds. Compared to last year’s European elections the opposition increased slightly its overall share of the vote.

According to projections, the right will win in six regions, up from the two it controlled heading into the elections, while the opposition Democrats will now control seven, down from 11. Thirteen of the country's 20 regions went to the polls, Voter turn-out dropped to 64 per cent, the lowest in 15 years.