Popularity plunges as fallout from sex scandal

Italian voters delivered a sharp gut punch to premier Silvio Berlusconi as his party lost key mayoral races in his hometown Milan and in Naples. It’s the first tangible political fallout from a yearlong sex scandal that distracted the media mogul prime minister and put him off his stride even as he seemed to be weathering it all oddly well.

He’s kept his slim majority in Parliament but his popularity plunged, a reality he refused to accept as he campaigned ferociously in Milan for outgoing mayor Letizia Moratti, making the election a referendum on his own tenure.

Berlusconi had lots of help. He owns the nation’s largest private broadcaster Mediaset and by virtue of his position also sits atop state television Rai. He was on TV so much during the campaign leading up to elections this Sunday and Monday that Italian communications watchdog Agcom slapped a fine on a different channel almost every day for a week for violating equal time provisions.

The exposure backfired. As did the ugly campaign. The right plastered the city with posters screaming ZINGAROPOLI! warning that Milan under center-left candidate Guliano Pisapia would become town full of gypsies.

Moratti lost to Pisapia with a resounding 55.1% to 44.9%.

“Now Milanese should pray to good God that nothing negative happens to them,” said Berlusconi.

In Naples, center-left contender Luigi de Magistris routed center- right candidate Giovanni Lettieri 65% to 34%.

But Milan is the crown jewel. Berlusconi and much of the city was surprised when Moratti failed to win a clear majority in a first round three weeks ago. Several third-party candidates siphoned off votes.

Over the last few days, Berlusconi acknowledged the possibility of defeat in the final vote but insisted that his government would stand, and that he would stay in office. His term doesn’t expire until 2013.

He will have to struggle to keep intact his alliance with the right- wing Northern League, which blames him for the upsets. The party, which famously wants the North of Italy to split from the south, is crucial to keeping Berlusconi in power.

Berlusconi gained international notoriety last summer when a 17-year- old runaway and stripper from Morocco, stage-name Ruby the Heart Stealer, was arrested for petty theft and started talking about wild sex parties at the prime minister’s villa outside Milan. Berlusconi had her quickly spirited out of headquarters by telling police she was the niece of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

It was too late. Endless stories of girls and sex grabbed the headlines and Milan prosecutors charged the premiere with soliciting prostitution with a minor, and abuse of power. His trial started in April.

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