May 29, 2006

Prodi bloc ahead in local election: poll

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left
bloc, in its first test since winning April general elections,
looked set on Monday to sweep at least three major cities in
mayoral races, according to a poll after the vote.

Centre-left incumbents had a clear advantage in Rome, Turin
and Naples, and may force an unexpected run-off in Milan, a
centre-right stronghold and the home-turf of opposition leader
Silvio Berlusconi, according to pollsters Piepoli.

Polls closed at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) and official results are
expected later on Monday.

The two-day vote across more than 1,260 cities and towns is
seen as an early barometer of Prodi's support since he narrowly
swept to power last month, ousting Berlusconi's centre-right
after five years of economic stagnation.

If confirmed, the results could strengthen Prodi's hand as
he tackles deteriorating public accounts that may trigger a
downgrade of Italy's debt by rating agencies unless he can push
through overdue but unpopular reforms.

A good showing in the north would also boost Prodi's bid to
bridge the north-south divide, which was highlighted by last
month's general election, and undermine Berlusconi's claim that
the richer and more productive part of the country supports

Berlusconi had hoped the polls would dish up revenge after
he lost the closest general election in Italy's post-war

He had a bit of good news from Sicily, where an actual
tally of about half of the vote showed that centre-right
governor Salvatore Cuffaro would win re-election, as expected.

Prodi's centre-left had fielded Rita Borsellino, sister of
slain anti-Mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino, who was killed by
a Mafia car bomb in 1992.

Cuffaro is on trial on charges of aiding and abetting the
Mafia. He denies all charges.

If no candidate wins an absolute majority, a second round
will be held on June 11-12.