* Result of Sicily regional election expected on Monday
* Anti-establishment 5 Star Movement seen doing well
* Berlusconi attack on Monti deepens party splits
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Oct 29 Sicilian local election results
will provide clues on Monday to the political impact of Silvio
Berlusconi's threat to withdraw support from Prime Minister
Mario Monti's government before next year's national election.
Sicilians voted on Sunday for a new regional government but
counting only began the next day. An exit poll in regional
capital Palermo conducted for local TRM television showed the
anti-establishment 5 Star Movement leading with 26 percent.
Turnout was low, with more than half those eligible to vote
staying away from a poll seen as a pointer toward the
parliamentary election expected in April.
Initial results are expected later in the day, with the
focus on the centre-right and the 5 Star Movement of comic Beppe
Grillo, which has pledged to fight waste and corruption in local
politics. A strong performance for the 5 Star Movement, after
its success in local polls in May, would reinforce its status as
the main vehicle for disillusion with mainstream parties.
However, Berlusconi's threat on Saturday to unseat the Monti
government has complicated the electoral outlook.
The billionaire former prime minister, convicted of tax
fraud last week, attacked Monti's austerity policies, announcing
that his centre-right party People of Freedom (PDL) may withdraw
support from the technocrat government.
That threat, just days after Berlusconi had announced he
would not run as leader of the centre-right in the election, has
underscored Italy's political confusion.
The weakened PDL is itself split between Berlusconi
loyalists, an uncertain faction of former allies from the old
National Alliance party and a more moderate, pro-Monti wing.
"The Monti government guarantees the credibility of Italy,"
former Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, prominent in the
moderate faction, told the Corriere della Sera daily on Monday.
He said he hoped the PDL leadership would decide "with a
broad consensus" to maintain its year-long backing for Monti's
unelected technocrat government in parliament.
TEST IN SICILY
Berlusconi was forced to step down almost exactly a year ago
at the height of a financial crisis which threatened to push
Italy's huge public debt out of control.
Markets had reacted nervously to the prospect of uncertainty
in the euro zone's third largest economy and yields on Italy's
10-year BTP bonds, hovered just under five percent, 345 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, the spread had
narrowed to as little as 313 points.
PDL secretary Angelino Alfano, 41, had been expected to lead
a post-Berlusconi renewal of the party, but his credibility has
been severely tested by his patron's repeated interventions and
the Sicilian vote will test his ability to lead.
Sicily, a byword for wasteful and corrupt administration,
has an unemployment rate almost twice the national average and
its economy has suffered badly in Italy's nationwide recession.
The election is expected to reflect the gloomy mood of
Italian voters, wearied by repeated tax hikes and spending cuts
and disgusted by a wave of political scandals.
The PDL lags in national opinion polls behind the centre
left Democratic Party (PD) and the 5 Star Movement. A poor
showing in Sicily would exacerbate internal tensions which
Alfano has struggled to contain.
The former justice minister, a Sicilian widely seen as a
moderate, has been favourite to win a primary for the PDL
leadership, but that could change if the Sicilian vote goes
The divisions at national level are reflected locally, where
the main centre right candidate for governor, Nello Musumeci, is
challenged by a rebel former PDL boss, Gianfranco Micciche.
Musumeci, backed by Alfano, had been leading a tight,
fragmented race ahead of Rosario Crocetta, the openly gay,
anti-mafia candidate of the centre-left. Micciche, now a bitter
enemy of Alfano, may end up as kingmaker.