Leagues poised to score at polls

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ROME (Reuter) - Umberto Bossi, leader of Italy's separatist Northern Leagues, is likely to be the big winner in local elections today. Neo-fascists and anti-Mafia campaigners are also expected to forge ahead as voters desert the traditional parties in droves, according to an opinion poll.

'The parties which have propped up the system for so long are going to be dumped,' said La Repubblica newspaper, which sponsored the latest survey. 'The bigger they are, the harder they will fall.'

Support for Italy's mainstream parties has been all but washed away by a flood of public protest this year. Economic crises, rising crime and a devastating corruption scandal have convinced voters that the world's fifth-biggest economy needs a complete change.

Hardest-hit have been the dominant Christian Democrats and their Socialist allies, who have formed the backbone of every Italian government for the past 30 years. In a general election last April, they saw their support plummet to record lows, while overnight Mr Bossi's Leagues became Italy's fourth-biggest political group.

Today and tomorrow 56 town councils and one provincial assembly will be elected, many in areas where local government has either collapsed under the weight of corruption or fallen into Mafia hands.

The Repubblica poll predicts that Mr Bossi's biggest win will be in his prosperous northern stronghold of Varese, which could become the first city to be ruled by the Leagues. With their expected 40percent of the vote, they will need probably only one ally to form a ruling coalition. The Leagues are also expected to show big gains in Monza.

La Rete (the Network), a new party dedicated to fighting the Mafia, is likely to show well in the south.