Analysis: Local election disaster wounds flailing Berlusconi

ROME Tue May 31, 2011 11:32am EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - Even for the greatest survivors, time runs out eventually and a debacle in local elections suggests that moment is drawing nearer for scandal-ridden Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The elections saw the center-right lose control of the financial capital Milan for the first time in nearly two decades, the opposition Italy of Values party take Naples in a landslide and a host of other cities won by the center left.

"What happened in Milan, Naples, Trieste, Cagliari, Novara and other centers resembles a revolution," the sober business daily Il Sole 24 Ore said in the aftermath.

Even Berlusconi's own home town of Arcore near Milan, scene of the notorious "bunga bunga" parties at the center of the "Rubygate" underage prostitution scandal which has dogged the 74-year-old premier in recent months, fell to the opposition.

So far his government has pledged to carry on but a palpable sense of confusion has hit the center right, summed up in the headline of Il Giornale, a fiercely pro-Berlusconi daily owned by the prime minister's brother.

"Great psychodrama," read the front page headline.

But while the left may have taken heart from the victory, Berlusconi, on trial on corruption and fraud charges and accused of paying for sex with a minor, will not go quietly and the government may hang on for some time yet.

"I expect there will be period of confusion in the next few months," said Luca Ricolfi, a political commentator and professor at Turin University.

"It's possible that Berlusconi could produce a 'coup de theatre' of some kind but I don't know what kind of surprise he can announce. As long as he has these judicial problems, he will try to stay in power."

However, given the fractious coalition he presides over, it appears increasingly unlikely that Berlusconi will see out his full term until 2013, he said. "We'll vote in April or May 2012. They won't get to the end of their term."

The center-left Democratic Party has called on Berlusconi to resign but what is more likely to count is the attitude of Berlusconi's partners in the Northern League, whose support he depends on for his thin parliamentary majority.

UNEASY ALLY

For the moment, that is unclear. In public, Northern League leaders have pledged to carry on with Berlusconi's PDL party but grassroots members have expressed deep alarm at the cost they have paid for their association with the scandal-hit premier.

The website of party newspaper La Padania and call-in programs on Radio Padania Libera have been flooded by angry League supporters furious at the election losses, which also hit their own party hard.

Instead of providing an entry to national government for the pro-devolution, anti-immigrant party of the north, Berlusconi now looks like damaged goods who risks dragging the League down with him, even in its own heartland.

That is certainly a hope of many on the left, who would like to detach the League and possibly enlist their support in a broad coalition to reform electoral laws that benefit the biggest parties and have helped cement the PDL's grip on power.

"I don't think the League can continue supporting Berlusconi as they have up to now. They risk disappearing as a central political force in the country," Enrico Letta, a senior member of the Democratic Party, told Reuters.

Berlusconi's domination of Italian politics and a personal fortune built on one of Europe's biggest media empires have made replacing him hard to imagine for many on the center right.

Both Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi's sometimes abrasive economy minister, and the young Justice Minister Angelino Alfano have been seen as possible successors but both face big obstacles and neither would slip in smoothly.

The PDL itself, a party that lives almost entirely through its leader, is riven with personal rivalries and animosities and few expect it to survive Berlusconi's own eventual departure in its current form.

But the premier has been weakened by a series of blows over the past 12 months, from last year's feud with former ally Gianfranco Fini, which nearly cost him a parliamentary majority, to the corruption and sex trials he faces at the moment.

Obsessed by the trials and given to long, repetitive attacks on what he sees as left-wing magistrates out to destroy him, Berlusconi has appeared increasingly distant from problems ranging from Italy's stagnant economy to a generation of young people condemned to unemployment or precarious, short-term jobs.

"He is getting old and there are a lot frictions in his coalition, so his grip on power is also going to weaken as a result," said Maurizio Pessato of pollsters SWG.

(Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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