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Struggling Silvio Berlusconi brushes off referendum worry

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi played down the significance of a coming referendum on nuclear power, seen as his next big test with voters after this week's crushing local election defeats.

"The result of the referendum has nothing at all to do with the government," he told Canale 5 television in a telephone interview today, adding that he would not be making any recommendation on how to vote.

"The government will abstain from any position and we will go along with the will of the citizens," he said.

The nuclear referendum, which received a final go-ahead from Italy's top court on Tuesday, will be held on 12-13 June with opposition parties hoping to build on the momentum from sweeping victories in local elections this week.

In a stunning blow to Berlusconi, the centre right lost the financial capital Milan for the first time in nearly 20 years as the left won a string of towns and cities across Italy.

Voters will be asked to decide on whether to allow the building of new nuclear power stations, which Berlusconi previously hoped would provide a quarter of import-dependent Italy's electricity requirements.

The government withdrew plans to relaunch the sector following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, hoping to avoid a referendum which it feared would be overwhelmingly lost and which would end any hopes of relaunching the sector.

However the opposition Italy of Values party, which opposes nuclear power, pressed for the referendum to be held and today, the party accused the prime minister of deliberately trying to mislead voters.

"The prime minister is lying and he knows he is lying," Italy of Values spokesman Leoluca Orlando said in a statement, in which he accused Berlusconi of trying to deceive Italians by trying to stop them voting on nuclear power.

As well as two questions on water privatisation, the referendum also asks voters whether ministers can plead that official duties constitute a "legitimate impediment" to their appearing in criminal trials.

Berlusconi, facing fraud and corruption trials as well as accusations of paying for sex with an underage prostitute, said the local election loss had been due to a combination of factors including the normal reaction against incumbent governments.

But he also denounced what he called a campaign of press "disinformation" against the government.

"Many moderate electors, disgusted by the spectacle of this type of policy, decided not to vote," he said.

"There is real disinformation and it's always against us."

Berlusconi's vast personal fortune stems from one of Europe's biggest broadcasting empires and his domination of Italy's airwaves has been seen as one of the keys to his success since he entered politics in 1994.

He brushed aside concerns that the local election defeat could hasten the end of his government and pledged to continue in office until the next scheduled elections in 2013, which he said the ruling PDL party would win.