Berlusconi allies suffer losses

Center right hit hard in regional elections

MILAN — Italian voters delivered a stunning rebuke to Prime Minister and media kingpin Silvio Berlusconi, tossing out candidates from his center right party in regional elections across the country on Sunday and Monday.

In a particularly ferocious battle in Berlusconi’s hometown of Milan, his candidate, incumbent Letizia Moratti, failed to gain a majority and faces a run-off May 29 with center-left contender Giuliano Pisapia. Moratti, whom Berlusconi is close to and had campaigned for vigorously, trailed Pisapia substantially in the final vote — 41.6% to 48%.

The result is dramatic considering the Moratti campaign’s deep pockets. The mayor, who has served one term, comes from a wealthy Milanese family and her husband is an oil baron. According to news reports, she spent Euros 12 million (about $17 million) to Pisapia’s $2.1 million.

Voters may have disliked smear tactics, as when Moratti, in the closing seconds of a one-on-one televised debate last week, accused Pisapia of palling around with left-wing extremists. She said he was once arrested for stealing a car that was meant to be used in a kidnapping. Pisapia had been exonerated of all charges in the case.

“People thought change was impossible. But I caught the desire for change. I talked to the Italian people, and I will continue to do so,” said an elated Pisapia.

Berlusconi himself had declared the contest to be a referendum on his government, which has been mired in a sordid sex scandal since last summer. He’s also been in and out of court as the target of a handful of corruption probes, one that revolves around acquiring programming for his giant entertainment company Mediaset.

The powerful prime minister, a master of Italy’s Byzantine political structure, has managed to retain a narrow majority in parliament even as his popularity took a hit in the polls.

The center-left carried home clear victories in Turin and Bologna and was in the lead ahead of run-offs in several other cities.

It’s not clear what immediately impact the elections will have on Berlusconi’s political fortunes. He has said he plans to remain until his term expires in 2013 and not seek re-election then. But what’s sure is that politics will dominate Italy’s airwaves for at least another two weeks.

Italian communications watchdog Agcom fined several newscasts in the days leading up to the elections, including state broadcaster RAI and Mediaset for violating equal time provisions and giving Berlusconi’s party Popolo della Liberta’ (PDL) too much coverage. It also censured Sky Italia for the Milan debate, which featured only the two main candidates that have a chance of winning, excluding third parties.