Left embarrasses Berlusconi

FROM ANDREW GUMBEL

in Rome

France was not the only country surprised by unreliable opinion polls yesterday. In Italy, where regional elections gave voters their first chance to adjudicate the political landscape since the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister last December, pollsters managed to mislead the country for nearly 12 hours after booths closed.

The initial picture that emerged from exit polls late on Sunday night was that Mr Berlusconi and his Freedom Alliance had scored a handsome if not overwhelming victory, taking eight or nine of 15 regional presidencies up for grabs and securing about 45 per cent of the vote.

Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia appeared to have emerged as the largest single political grouping, taking 24.5 per cent of the vote compared with 22 per cent for the left-wing PDS. He was confident enough to repeat his call for snap general elections, saying the exit polls had given him "more than ample justification" to ask President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro to dissolve parliament.

But, as more reliable computer projections came in yesterday, it turned out Mr Berlusconi had spoken too soon. His coalition had won only six or seven regional presidencies with about 40 per cent of the vote. The largest single party was not Forza Italia, but the PDS - the first time in post-war Italian history that the left has topped a national election.

It now seems general elections will be put off until autumn at the earliest, giving the stopgap government of Prime Minister Lamberto Dini time to attack such thorny issues as media ownership and anti-trust legislation - both areas that could damage Mr Berlusconi.

The results also gave the lie to Mr Berlusconi's claim that parliament had become "delegitimised" because it no longer represented popular opinion: the parties that have consistently supported Mr Dini polled more than 50 per cent of the votes.

An embarrassed silence descended as party leaders who had proved over-loquacious on Sunday decided to wait for the official tally before risking further their opinions and reputations.

Holding the balance of power are the far-left Rifondazione Comunista and the Northern League, the volatile federalist movement which walked out on Mr Berlusconi last year.

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