Berlusconi faces popularity test in local elections
ROME (Reuters) - Local elections in Italy Sunday and Monday will show whether a sex scandal, three corruption trials and a stagnating economy have seriously damaged Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi two years before the end of his term.
Some 13 million Italians, nearly a quarter of the population, are eligible to vote in 1,177 towns and nine provinces, although turnout is expected to be relatively low because of disillusionment with the stormy political climate.
The most important contests are in the four big cities of Turin, Naples, Bologna and Milan -- Italy's business capital and Berlusconi's home town, where his centre-right coalition runs the risk of losing for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The local vote follows opinion polls putting Berlusconi's popularity at about 30 percent, the lowest since he swept to power for the third time in 2008, but more than once in the past the 74-year old premier has defied predictions that his grip on power was weakening.
"The problem is that when people are inside the polling station, they change their mind and always end up voting for Berlusconi, and that is because the centre left does not have a leader as strong as him in terms of charisma," said Milan resident Giorgio Cecchi.
Since March, Berlusconi has faced four concurrent trials for corruption, tax fraud and, most sensationally, having sex with an underage prostitute and then using his office to cover it up.
He is also battling accusations that he has failed to tackle Italy's low growth, and strains have intensified in his alliance with the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant Northern League.
Data Friday showed Italy's economy grew just 0.1 percent in the first quarter, far below Germany's 1.5 percent growth but also lagging the 0.8 percent expansion of debt-stricken Greece.
The League, vital for Berlusconi's survival after he split from long-time ally Gianfranco Fini, has repeatedly distanced itself from him, notably opposing Italy's involvement in the NATO bombing of Libya.
If it does well in the vote at the expense of Berlusconi's PDL party, it will demand an even bigger say in the coalition.
JOKES AND INVECTIVES
With so much at stake, Berlusconi has hit the campaign trail over the past two weeks, criss-crossing the country and turning the election into a vote on him rather than on local issues.
Using his trademark mix of jokes, invectives against magistrates and opponents, and last-minute electoral pledges, he has stolen the limelight and dictated the political agenda.
Over the past few days he has called prosecutors a "cancer of democracy" and said the opposition "don't wash much."
In Naples, where garbage has piled up again in the streets, he promised to scrap a rubbish tax until the city is clean and to stop demolishing houses built illegally for a year.
The divided centre-left, unable so far to capitalise on Berlusconi's woes, hopes to show the tide is turning.
In Milan, it has pinned its hopes on Giuliano Pisapia, a lawyer who may have the best chance in years to topple the centre-right city government. Incumbent mayor Letizia Moratti is seen as vulnerable because of wide middle class disappointment at her failure to modernise the northern city.
Commentators say that even a run-off in Milan -- let alone Moratti's defeat -- would be a blow to Berlusconi, who launched his political career in the city where he became a billionaire.
(additional reporting by Barry Moody and Reuters TV; Editing by Matthew Jones)
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