May 29, 2006

Prodi’s bloc eyes big wins in local polls in Italy

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left
bloc, in its first test since narrowly winning a general
election, looked set on Monday to sweep at least three major
cities in mayoral races, according to projected results.

Prodi's candidates 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 two pollsters.

Milan, Italy's financial capital, has not had a centre-left
mayor since 1993.

Voting ended at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) and official results were
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 snatched
a knife-edge victory 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 the
April ballot, and undermine Berlusconi's claim that the richer
and more productive part of the country supports him.

Berlusconi had hoped the polls would dish up revenge after
his narrow defeat.

But in Milan, his candidate, former Education Minister
Letizia Moratti, was shown neck-and-neck at 48.9 percent with
her centre-left rival.

Pollsters also showed the centre-left incumbent well ahead
in Naples, where Berlusconi had hoped to upset Prodi, although
a run-off might be needed.

"Naples was the one that Berlusconi had made some kind of
investment on. Naples is going to be a shock for him if Rosa
Russo Iervolino wins immediately," leading political
commentator Sergio Romano told Reuters.

Berlusconi 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 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.