Italy's local elections produce an upset for Berlusconi

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi's "House of Liberties" coalition appeared to be heading for an embarrassing upset in Rome in the first round of local elections which ended yesterday. Mr Berlusconi had turned the elections into a vote of confidence in his leadership.

The governorship of Rome is held by the centre-right, and some Italian commentators believe that a shift in the city can be construed as a vote with national implications.

Exit polls after voting finished showed the left's candidate, Enrico Gasparra, leading the incumbent, Alleanza Nationale ("post-fascist") candidate, Silvano Moffa, by a few percentage points.

Twelve provincial governments and about 500 city councils were up for election in the two days of voting. More than 11 million people - a quarter of the Italian electorate - were eligible to vote.

It was not a wipe-out for the government, but enough for the flagging opposition to begin drying off the fireworks. Pierluigi Castagnetti, leader of the centre-left Margherita Party, said "I believe the opposition will gain a majority in the country ... This election will say that the centre-left is on the comeback trail."

Elsewhere, however, results were too mixed to present a definite picture, with local factors weighing heavily in many constituencies. Even if Mr Gasparra wins, it is not certain his lead will be enough to prevent a second round play-off in two weeks' time.

Sandro Bondi, Mr Berlusconi's spokesman, said, "At this moment it's impossible to make an evaluation or prediction, but we can draw satisfaction from the first exit polls."

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