Crucial test for Berlusconi as Italians head to the polls

Reuters/Paolo Bona

Italians go to the polls on Sunday in partial local elections with all eyes on the northern business hub of Milan, the centre-right powerbase of embattled Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. 


The vote which continues through Monday is seen as a last major test of Berlusconi's popularity before his term runs out in 2013. It comes as the flamboyant Italian leader is
embroiled in legal and sex scandals.

The centre-right incumbent in Milan, Letizia Moratti, is expected to retain her post, but polls show she might not win outright in the first round and could be forced into a runoff vote at the end of the month.

The daily Il Giornale, owned by the Berlusconi family, published "10 reasons to re-elect Letizia Moratti" against her centre-left rival, lawyer Giuliano Pisapia, who polled between 40 and 42 per cent against 44 to 48 per cent for Moratti in voter surveys.

The billionaire Berlusconi, head of a sprawling media empire, is currently a defendant in three trials in Milan, including one in which he is accused of having sex with an underage prostitute and using his position to cover it up.

He has also been hit by the defection of a key ally, parliament speaker Gianfranco Fini and around 40 lawmakers.

His popularity reached a record low of 31 per cent in the latest poll last month - down from more than 60 per cent after his election to a third stint as prime minister in 2008.

Some 13 million of Italy's 49 million-strong voters are eligible to cast ballots, with weak growth and unemployment as well as local issues - notably the chronic waste disposal crisis in Naples -uppermost in their minds.

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