Premier Silvio Berlusconi's coalition made a strong showing in regional elections across Italy, winning crucial races and snatching four areas from the opposition, final returns showed Tuesday.
Berlusconi emerged as the political victor after two days of balloting that had been largely depicted as a test of his popularity. His government ally, the Northern League, also fared very strongly.
Overall, the conservatives won six regions - compared with the two they controlled going into the vote- while the center-left opposition held on to seven. The most resounding success for Berlusconi came overnight in two races that went down to the wire: Lazio, which includes the capital; and Piedmont, a region in the country's industrial north. Both were previously held by the opposition.
Final turnout stood at 64 percent - high by the standards of many Western democracies, but 8 percent down from the last Italian regional elections in 2005. Around 41 million people were eligible to cast ballots in the country of 60 million. Analysts had predicted that a low turnout would hurt the governing power - as it did with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in recent regional balloting in France.
But Berlusconi repeatedly urged his supporters to go to the polls ahead of the vote Sunday and Monday. In the last couple of weeks, the 73-year-old premier went on the offensive and stepped up his campaign through numerous media appearances and a big rally in Rome. In the end, the voters who deserted the polls appeared to come from both sides.
Almost two years into his current premiership, Berlusconi appeared vulnerable coming into the election, making his success all the more significant. His popularity has been falling as Italians grow concerned by job losses, frightened by the country's economic future and increasingly detached from a political class mired in corruption scandals.
The electoral campaign was dominated by judicial probes and legal wrangling over the list of Berlusconi's candidates, adding to a sentiment of disaffection toward politics. "Nobody would have been surprised if Berlusconi had lost the regional elections," one of Italy's leading political analysts, Stefano Folli, wrote in the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
"But Berlusconi maneuvered with his usual dexterity through a mean electoral campaign," Folli wrote. "And he even managed to avoid the trap of a record-low turnout." In Lazio, Renata Polverini, a largely unknown former right-wing union leader, defeated Emma Bonino, a veteran politician and former European Union commissioner known for abortion and euthanasia rights positions that make her persona non grata at the Vatican.
Bonino stepped into the race after the incumbent center-left governor quit in shame last year amid a scandal of cocaine and transsexual prostitutes. Ultimately, Catholic voters who opposed her positions might have cost her the election. The success of the conservative Polverini came after an embarrassing registration mix up that excluded Berlusconi's party from the election. A tearful Polverini, announcing her victory in a Rome piazza overnight, said that "miracles do occur."
The conservatives held the regions of Veneto, where the Northern League candidate had a landslide, and Lombardy, where the incumbent governor won easily. They also snatched away Campania, where the government worked to clean up the chronic garbage pileup in Naples, and Calabria, a poor region in the south, the figures said. The center-left opposition kept regions, such as Tuscany and Umbria, that are part of its traditional stronghold.