Regional elections to test Berlusconi

Italians are voting in regional
elections seen as the biggest test for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi since
his return to power two years ago.

Thirteen out of 20 regions are
involved in the vote, being held over two days.

Mr. Berlusconi has been at the
centre of a series of political and personal controversies, which may affect
the chances of his People of Freedom party.

Earlier, police said the postal
service had intercepted a letter addressed to Mr. Berlusconi containing a

A package, directed at a party in
Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition, the Northern League, was also seized but exploded,
slightly injuring a postman in Milan.

A note in the package named the Interior
Minister, Roberto Maroni, who has introduced tougher laws on illegal immigration.
An anarchist group said it had sent it.

Coalition challenge

The BBC’s Duncan Kennedy in Rome
says that after the European Parliament elections last June, the regional
elections on Sunday and Monday represent the biggest test of public opinion
since Mr. Berlusconi was re-elected in 2008.

Some 41 million Italians are
eligible to vote – two-thirds of the population.

Close contests are likely in Lazio,
which includes the capital, and Piedmont, an affluent northern region held by
the centre-left.

The People of Freedom party
currently controls only two of the 13 regions at stake, but had been expected
to pick up more this time, said Mr. Kennedy.

However, a series of political and
personal controversies surrounding Mr. Berlusconi in recent months could limit
the gains, he added.

The party’s candidates have been
barred from standing in Lazio after an official missed a deadline to submit the
required documents.

The government passed an emergency
decree to ensure the electoral list was included, but a top court overturned

A corruption investigation into
building contracts for last year’s G8 summit in the earthquake-stricken Italian
city of L’Aquila has also implicated Mr. Berlusconi’s civil protection chief,
Guido Bertolaso.

Then last week, Italian media said
the prime minister was being investigated for allegedly trying to pressure the
communications watchdog to block state TV talk shows critical of his

Mr. Berlusconi had already suffered
a turbulent 2009, marked by allegations about his friendship with a teenage
model and about escort girls attending parties at his residences.

His wife also filed for divorce,
and he suffered a broken nose when a man threw a model of Milan cathedral at
his face.

Unemployment and the economy are
also concerns for voters.

Some analysts say a poor result in
the regional elections for the People of Freedom might give the Northern League
more power over Mr Berlusconi in the coalition government.

Others say the 73-year-old
billionaire may even face a challenge to his leadership – possibly from the
president of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini – though that is seen by
most as unlikely.

The BBC’s correspondent said the regional
elections a rare chance for millions of Italians to express their views on Mr.

Although turnout may not be high,
the results will be studied by his allies and opponents alike, to see which
direction Italy will follow, he added.