Embattled Berlusconi is boosted by ally's poll win

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The Independent Online

Silvio Berlusconi is enjoying a new lease of life as Italy's leader after his personal physician, Umberto Scapagnini, defied all the opinion polls to win a second term as mayor of the Sicilian city of Catania.

Silvio Berlusconi is enjoying a new lease of life as Italy's leader after his personal physician, Umberto Scapagnini, defied all the opinion polls to win a second term as mayor of the Sicilian city of Catania.

It was one small victory after a string of stinging defeats for the media billionaire, but yesterday's result silenced commentators who have been predicting the imminent collapse of his House of Liberties coalition. It also gave a jolt to the centre-left, which many believed had already as good as won the general election due next spring after trouncing the centre-right up and down the country in recent regional elections.

Mr Berlusconi, never one to underestimate his own charisma, was quick to draw what seemed to him the obvious conclusion. "When I go out on the stump, I win," he said, referring to two days he spent campaigning in the city alongside Mr Scapagnini, the first time he has shown his face to voters during the recent run of losses. "I want to see who's going to put [my leadership] in discussion now."

Dissidents in the ruling coalition have been talking openly for weeks about finding a new figurehead in place of Mr Berlusconi before the general election. For the time being he has silenced them. But analysts say that the true reason for Scapagnini's win, securing 52 per cent of the vote against 45 per cent for the centre left candidate, Enzo Bianco, is that a local politician called Raffaele Lombardo, the force behind a Sicilian initiative called the Autonomy Movement, swung his supporters behind Mr Berlusconi's candidate, bringing in an extra and decisive 20 per cent of the vote. "With this political experiment," Mr Lombardo declared, "we have thrown a political lifebelt not so much to Scapagnini as to Berlusconi." And he will be expecting some reward.

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