Sicily vote provides key test for national elections

Sicilian elections on Sunday provided a key testing ground for Italy's political parties before national elections in the spring to replace the technical government of Premier Mario Monti.

Ten candidates were vying for governor of one of Italy's most important regions in the election, which 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.

The region of about 5 million inhabitants and with an unemployment rate of nearly 20 percent is considered a barometer for national elections.

Italian political parties are jockeying for strategies to retake power in Rome when the mandate for Monti's government expires.

Monti, who took power last year tasked with shielding Italy from the debt crisis, has said he will not run for another term, but has said he would be open to a second term under certain circumstances, which analysts have said would mean if no party wins a clear mandate or can put together a majority.

On the center-left, the Democratic Party and the centrist Union of the Center Party have united behind one candidate, testing sentiment for a possible repeat in the national elections.

Ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Liberty Party, damaged by political scandals in the regions of Lazio and Lombardy, also is seeking to invigorate itself. On the eve of the vote and just days after saying he would not run in the spring for premier, the 76-year-old Berlusconi threatened to withdraw support for Monti's policies.

Berlusconi was convicted Friday of tax fraud, and sentenced to four years in jail. The sentence is not definitive until two levels of appeals are exhausted, which his lawyers have vowed to pursue.

Meanwhile, he populist Five Star Movement launched by comic Beppe Grillo is proving a threat to the traditional center-right and center-left parties.