News comes after he muzzled political talkshows

Italian prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi appears to have avoided defeat in local elections, according to early results.

The news comes after he muzzled political talkshows critical of his regime by forcing them out of primetime.

Final tallies of the weekend’s two-day vote in 13 out of 20 regions will not be available until Tuesday.

But it looks as though Berlusconi’s conservative coalition kept the two regions it already held and gained two more while the opposition held on to six. Three, including the Lazio region comprising Rome, were neck and neck.

Plagued by corruption charges, a prostitution scandal, and an investigation for allegedly trying to muzzle TV talk shows that he perceived as critical on pubcaster RAI, the 73-year-old Berlusconi has a lot riding on this vote.

But while the 64% turnout was among the lowest in an Italian election, signalling apathy, early indications are that the result — though far from Berlusconi’s 2008 landslide — will not prove as damaging as regional elections recently did for French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“He’s in the saddle until 2013, these elections won’t change that,” said Berlusconi’s coalition partner Umberto Bossi.

However, analysts say that waning electoral support could weaken Berlusconi’s media influence and play a crucial role in the battle between his Mediaset TV empire and Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox.

Sky Italia is lobbying for European Union clearance to take part in auctions for the country’s digital TV frequencies, a move favored by the media watchdog but opposed by the government.

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