Berlusconi turns local election into personal test

Premier Silvio Berlusconi faces his first electoral test since going on trial for allegedly buying sex from an underage prostitute, as cities including Milan, his home base, and garbage-plagued Naples elect mayors.

Berlusconi has made the voting Sunday and Monday personal: he has campaigned relentlessly, especially in Milan, and has called on Italians to vote for his candidates to signal support for the national government.

"We must win not only to bring good government to cities but also — and above all — to confirm and strengthen the national government," he said in a message posted on his party's website.

Nearly 13 million voters — almost a quarter of the Italian population — are eligible to cast ballots in some 1,200 cities, towns and villages.

But all eyes are on the big races: Milan, where the incumbent mayor, a close Berlusconi ally, is expected to win; and Naples, where Berlusconi's forces hope to oust the center-left, which has held the office of mayor for several terms.

Also electing mayors are the industrial city of Turin, home to the Fiat auto giant, and Bologna. Both are expected to remain in the hands of Berlusconi's center-left opponents.

In Milan, Berlusconi has the most invested: his media empire is based there, as is his football team AC Milan, and his villa is just outside the city. But it's also the city where Berlusconi is facing trial on prostitution and abuse of office charges, along with three other legal cases.

The premier has denied wrongdoing in all cases, launching vehement attacks against what he says are left-leaning prosecutors intent on ousting him from power.

The sex case, with its racy details and allegations of wild parties, is potentially highly damaging to Berlusconi — with recent polls showing that scandal is finally taking its toll on his popularity.

But when Berlusconi's purported fondness for young women emerged two years ago, he emerged unscathed in European Parliament elections. And the premier, 74, has survived a long history of judicial troubles.

"The trial is at an early stage, I don't think people will vote on the basis of it, but more in general," said political analyst Franco Pavoncello, the president of John Cabot University in Rome. "Its impact has been absorbed, at least until some escort begins speaking to the court, which is different from reading about it on newspapers."

Polls are suspended because of the campaign, but Berlusconi insists he still has a 50 percent approval rating. Despite Berlusconi's aggressive campaigning, his candidate in Milan, incumbent Mayor Letizia Moratti, might be forced to a runoff.

Milan also serves as a power base of the Northern League, Berlusconi's xenophobic coalition partner that advocates greater autonomy for Italy's wealthy north. While both the League and Berlusconi's People of Freedom party support Moratti, a strong showing by the League might affect the balance of power in the national government.

During his campaign, Berlusconi has taken to the airwaves and persistently attacked his leftist opponents — at one point even saying leftists "do not wash very much."

The premier will wrap up his campaign Friday in Naples, where he sent soldiers this week as the southern city grapples with yet another flare-up of its long-standing garbage collection crisis. With dumps closed and only one incinerator open, the city and surrounding villages cannot dispose of their trash. Hundreds of tons of garbage remain uncollected.

Berlusconi had pledge to solve the crisis, but three years after holding the first Cabinet meeting of his newly elected government in Naples in a symbolic gesture, tons of stinking garbage are still piling up.

The premier's candidate is seen as the front-runner but a widespread sense of discontent toward the ruling class makes predictions difficult and a runoff likely. Naples is also grappling with high unemployment, especially among youth, and organized crime, with the Camorra syndicate based there.

For candidates who fail to win 50 percent plus one of the vote, runoffs are held May 29-30.