Berlusconi and rivals claim poll victories

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has emerged only slightly damaged from municipal elections at the weekend that also put zest into the left-wing opposition.

Mr Berlusconi - who is under threat from a corruption case that might still land him in jail with a lengthy sentence - tried to turn the elections into a personal crusade against "communist" judges.

That gambit appears to have failed: an election eve opinion poll put the justice system near the bottom of a list of subjects on voters' minds, with crime and taxation at the top of the list.

Yet neither did the local electorates, with nearly 12 million voting in 12 provinces up and down the country, punish Mr Berlusconi. His party, Forza Italia, also did well in Sicily, where it holds all the parliamentary seats, and his main coalition ally, the Northern League, made gains.

But a resounding win in the critical province of Rome put new life into Italy's leftist opposition parties. It also taught them an important lesson: that a strong candidate, identified with a vigorous and effective administration, can trounce a centre-right coalition that in the general elections of 2001 appeared unbeatable.

Enrico Gasbarra, candidate of 10 left-wing parties for the province of Rome, was previously the deputy of the city of Rome's dynamic left-wing mayor, Walter Veltroni, and the magic has rubbed off. By gaining 53 per cent of the vote, Mr Gasbarra denied his "post-fascist" Alleanza Nationale opponent, Silvana Moffa, the chance of beating him in a run-off.

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