Berlusconi's popularity tested by vote

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his increasingly restless allies are awaiting results of mayoral runoffs in his Milan power base and elsewhere in Italy in local elections he says are really a test of voter sentiment on the national government.

Tallying of the ballots was set to begin after the close of polling stations Monday on the second and final day of voting.

The media mogul who jumped into politics two decades ago has staked his political clout in particular on the race in Milan, where he campaigned heavily for the incumbent.

With opinion polls finding his popularity slipping, Berlusconi says he'll read the outcome of local races as a test of voter sentiment on his 3-year-old conservative government.

He is mired in a prostitution scandal that sees him on trial in Milan. Berlusconi denies all wrongdoing and says years of corruption and other probes against him are a plot by prosecutors he claims sympathize with the left to topple him from power.

Critics say most of his energy is involved in defending himself from charges he paid for sex with an underage Moroccan teenager, then used the premier's office to try to cover up his involvement, and in pushing legislation they contend is tailor-made to help him in his many legal woes, including three corruption probes and trials in Milan.

Should his candidate, Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti, who trailed in the first round, lose, Berlusconi's sometimes fickle ally, Umberto Boss, the lynchpin of his coalition, could pressure the premier for more weight in the center-right coalition.

Bossi has been openly criticizing some of Berlusconi's moves of late, especially the government's decision to step up its involvement in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya.

Bossi and his anti-immigrant Northern League Party fear the air strikes will spur more illegal migrants to flee from northern African shores to Italy. Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have already landed on Italian islands and coastlines since unrest and revolts swept through Northern Africa earlier this year.

But at least one ally from Berlusconi's Freedom People party was predicting that even if Berlusconi's candidates lose in Milan and in Naples, the other key city with the mayor's post up for grabs, the national government will ride out its term to parliamentary elections in 2013.

"I don't see the possibility of an alternative government, and no one, I believe, wants to see early elections," Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told La Stampa daily in an interview. La Russa pointed out that that the League's candidates also took a trouncing in several smaller races in the north, where it is rooted.

On the national level, the opposition center-left has failed to capitalize on government coalition squabbling. Three years after Berlusconi solidly beat his rival in 2008 voting, the opposition has yet to present a charismatic leader.