MILAN (Reuters) - Italians vote in local elections on Sunday and Monday, a test of how badly Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been hurt by a sex scandal, three trials for corruption and a stagnating economy.
Almost a quarter of the 60 million population are eligible to vote in 1,177 towns and nine provinces, although turnout is expected to be low because of disillusionment with political mud slinging.
The most important contests will be in the big cities of Turin, Naples, Bologna and Milan, Italy’s business capital and Berlusconi’s base where his centre-right coalition runs the risk of losing for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The local elections, two years before the next parliamentary election is due, follow opinion polls putting Berlusconi’s popularity at about 30 percent, its lowest since he stormed to power for a third time in 2008.
“Never have local elections been so vital,” said Alberto Bombassei, deputy head of the business leaders federation.
Reflecting wide concern among businesses about the failure to tackle Italy’s chronically low growth, he told Reuters:” Our political situation is chaotic. In such a grave moment at a global level, there must be coherence and convergence. Instead we are seeing continuous quarrelling.”
The elections will test the strained alliance between Berlusconi’s PDL party and the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant Northern League which is vital for his survival, especially if they do well and he fares badly.
With so much at stake, Berlusconi has raised the political temperature with a wave of insults against prosecuting magistrates and the centre-left opposition and turned the election into a vote on him instead of local issues.
Jibes against the magistrates, who have forced him to face four concurrent trials for corruption, fraud and having sex with a minor and then using his office to cover it up, included calling them a “cancer of democracy.”
This week he said the opposition “don’t wash much.”
Berlusconi also called for an increase in his powers and a reduction in those of respected President Giorgio Napolitano, who has repeatedly tried to restrain his inflammatory rhetoric.
He even accused magistrates of being responsible for a garbage crisis that has left trash on the streets of Naples and become an election issue. He invited the population to dump trash at the public prosecutor’s office.
In Milan, mayor Letizia Moratti is seen as vulnerable because of wide middle class disillusionment with her failure to modernise the northern city.
Her opponent, leftwinger Giuliano Pisapia, may have the best chance for years to topple the centre-right city government in what would be a heavy blow to Berlusconi, who launched his political career in the city where he became a billionaire.
The bitterness of the contest was underlined in a television debate on Wednesday when Moratti accused Pisapia of stealing a car for an extremist political kidnap 30 years ago.
Pisapia later produced evidence he had been acquitted of the charge and said he would sue her for slander.
The Northern League, which has distanced itself from Berlusconi on several issues including Italy’s involvement in the NATO bombing of Libya and his insults against the magistrates, will try to increase their strength in Lombardy after winning Veneto and Piedmont in regional polls last year.
If the League does well in the elections and Berlusconi’s weakness is confirmed, they are likely to increase their power within the alliance and step up demands for policy changes.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; Writing by Barry Moody; Editing by Janet Lawrence