Berlusconi faces test in local elections

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The Independent Online

Voters began casting ballots today in Italy's regional elections, which are being seen as an important test of popularity for prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The conservative leader campaigned relentlessly for the Sunday-Monday ballot, urging his supporters to vote and avert the risk of low turnout. He has seen his popularity eroded amid rising unemployment, a corruption scandal and an investigation into his alleged attempts to influence TV coverage.

The ballots were being held in 13 of Italy's 20 regions, as well as in a handful of cities, and the outcome would not have direct consequences on the stability of Berlusconi's 20-month-old government.

But with some 41 million Italians eligible to cast ballots - out of a population of 60 million - the elections were seen as a barometer of the country's support for its leader.

A defeat for Berlusconi might alter the balance of power within the government, especially if his allies do well - and possibly lead to a Cabinet shuffle. A strong showing would give Berlusconi momentum to push through controversial reforms, such as one of the justice system.

Berlusconi's conservatives were expected, however, to keep the two regions in elections they held going into the vote, and possibly snatch two away from their centre-left rivals.

Significant races were being held in Lazio, the region that includes the capital and where a registration mix-up excluded a Berlusconi list, and Piedmont, an affluent northern region currently held by the centre-left and seen as very close contest.

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