ROME – A protest party candidate made a strong showing in Sicilian elections seen as a test before Italy-wide elections in the spring to replace the technical government of Premier Mario Monti. The vote was also marked by sharply lower turnout.
With more than 50 percent of the vote counted Monday, center-left candidate Rosario Crocetta led with 31 percent of the vote. The big surprise was the nearly 19 percent garnered so far by the populist Five Star Movement launched by comic Beppe Grillo.
Only 47 percent of eligible voters cast ballots Sunday, down from 67 percent in the 2008 regional election.
The election was called following the resignation of Gov. Raffaele Lombardo amid concerns that the region risked insolvency and following his indictment on charges of Mafia association. He has denied the charges.
Fitch Ratings downgraded Sicily's rating to BBB on Monday reflecting "expectations of a prolonged period of budgetary deficits" as the region struggles to balance the health care sector.
Sicily, which posted a 5 percent deficit last year, isn't expected to balance its budget before 2014 on higher revenue and cost-cutting, Fitch said.
Meanwhile, Italy saw its borrowing rate drop in an auction of six-month bonds in which it easily raised €8 billion ($10.3 billion) to service its high level of public debt.
The government's need to borrow on bond markets has eased since it raised €18 billion — far exceeding expectations — in an auction earlier this month that targeted retail investors.