Sicilian vote, Berlusconi threat add to Italy uncertainty
ROME (Reuters) - The divided party of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered a fresh blow on Monday as voters turned against the center-right in its former stronghold of Sicily, only five months before national parliamentary elections.
With the count half completed after a regional election on Sunday, center-left candidate Renato Crocetta was on course to become next governor and there were strong gains for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
A record abstention level also underscored deep voter disillusion with the choices on offer in the island region that has been a byword for wasteful and corrupt administration and which came close to bankruptcy earlier this year.
The election for a regional government in Sicily is a major test ahead of a national poll in April but the picture has been confused by Berlusconi's threat at the weekend to pull support from Prime Minister Mario Monti and bring down his government before an election expected in April.
Almost 53 percent of Sicilian voters stayed away from ballot booths while Grillo's 5-Star movement built on its success in local elections in May, reinforcing its position as a prime vehicle for voter anger over a painful recession.
Crocetta had some 30 percent of the vote for regional governor, ahead of the center-right candidate Nello Musumeci on 25 percent, 5-Star candidate Giancarlo Cancelleri on 19 percent and Gianfranco Micciche, a conservative who split from Berlusconi's camp, on 15 percent.
A deep recession, repeated tax hikes and spending cuts and a wave of lurid political scandals have infuriated voters who have turned away from the mainstream parties and contributed to Grillo's spectacular rise.
Berlusconi's angry attack on Monti's technocrat government, which his center-right People of Freedom (PDL) group has supported in parliament for almost a year, underscored the political confusion ahead of next year's national vote.
The billionaire former prime minister, convicted of tax fraud last week, attacked Monti's austerity policies on Saturday, announcing that the PDL may withdraw its support and bring the government down.
TEST IN SICILY
That threat, just days after he had announced he would not lead the center-right in the election, has deepened divisions in the PDL between Berlusconi loyalists and a more moderate, pro-Monti wing which wants to rebuild the center-right.
"The Monti government guarantees the credibility of Italy," former foreign minister Franco Frattini, who is prominent in the moderate faction, told the Corriere della Sera daily on Monday.
Monti himself, who will not be running in next year's election, dismissed fears that his government would fall and said he intended to work until the end of his term.
"I think that the best thing for us to do is continue to work with a time horizon of spring 2013 as has always been our intention," he said at a news conference in Madrid.
Berlusconi was forced to step down and make way for Monti almost exactly a year ago at the height of a financial crisis which drove up Italy's borrowing costs and threatened to push its huge public debt out of control.
Markets reacted nervously at the fresh bout of political uncertainty in the euro zone's third largest economy and yields on Italy's 10-year government bonds reached around five percent, 354 basis points over the yield of benchmark German Bunds.
Earlier this month, helped by the European Central Bank's pledge of strong action to combat the crisis, that spread had narrowed to as little as 313 basis points.
Berlusconi's attack has also created a problem for PDL party secretary Angelino Alfano, the 41 year-old Sicilian who has struggled to impose his authority on the squabbling party, which is lagging badly in national opinion polls.
He has many enemies in the party and the looming defeat in his home region could bring more challengers out in a primary on December 16 to choose the next candidate to lead the center-right in the election campaign.
(Editing by Barry Moody and Alastair Macdonald)
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