Right-wingers real winners of Italy poll

Berlusconi could face cabinet power struggle after disappointing regional vote
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Italians stayed away from the polling stations in record numbers, signalling major disillusionment with Silvio Berlusconi, who will now be fretting about the threat from his right flank in the form of a newly bolstered Northern League.

According to early projections last night, the xenophobic right-wingers looked to have won their first two regions, seizing control of the important northern region of Piemonte from the centre-left and also wresting Veneto from the Prime Minister's People of Freedom party (PDL).

Pundits suggested that if the exit polls were confirmed, the power-swing in the ruling coalition would make it harder for Mr Berlusconi to push through his constitutional reforms. The 73-year-old, enjoying his third stint as Prime Minister, had been hoping to introduce a reduced number of seats in parliament and an overhaul of the judiciary, whom he views as left-wing and politically motivated.

The prime minister's spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, last night stressed that victory in four regions "would mean we had doubled the number of regions versus five years ago".

But the League's rise will worry the premier. The party's pugnacious leader, Umberto Bossi, has already labelled the rank and file of Mr Berlusconio's party as "amateurs out of their depth" and he will only be more emboldened by a strong showing over the weekend. "They will have their own priorities for reforms, such as more autonomy for the north of Italy, which means some of Berlusconi's may have to take a back seat," said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome.

Equally concerning for Mr Berlusconi was the drop in turnout for the polls in 13 of Italy's 20 regions. Only 64 per cent of the 41 million eligible voters bothered to show up – eight points down from Italy's 2005 polls and the lowest turnout in 15 years.

Analysts suggested that rising unemployment and the perceived failure of Mr Berlusconi's party to combat the worst recession since 1945 had taken the shine of the perma-tanned leader among his core voters.

According to the initial, partial results, the centre-left looked to have control of six regions, Mr Berlusconi's PDL taking four, and the Northern League winning two. Lazio, which includes Rome, appeared to have gone to the centre-right by the slimmest of margins, with its candidate Renata Polverini claiming victory just before midnight. There was much riding on the vote here, both for the government and the opposition Democratic Party after a debacle which saw the PDL fail to register its candidates on time because the designated official was on a sandwich break. "If the centre-right loses, the list fiasco will be blamed," said Mr Pavoncello. "But if the Democratic Party fails to win, people will be asking, 'If it can't win here, where can it win?'"