ROME Italy's top administrative court on Saturday dealt a blow to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's regional election hopes when it refused to reinstate the ruling coalition's candidate list submitted late for the poll in Rome province.
The State Council's ruling came in spite of an emergency government decree passed this month to ensure its list was reinstated, after bureaucratic bungling meant it failed to submit documents on time to the electoral office.
A series of appeals to lower courts had already been rejected. It may further erode Berlusconi's popularity, which polls say has fallen already as result of the mess-up ahead of the March 28-29 local ballot.
The vote in 13 of Italy's 20 regions is seen as an important test of strength for Berlusconi's government two years after its crushing victory at the 2008 general election.
An IPR poll on Wednesday for the left-leaning newspaper la Repubblica showed support for Berlusconi falling to 44 percent and backing for his government at 38 percent, which the paper said was the lowest level since May 2005.
An ISPO poll published in Corriere della Sera daily on Friday said 17 percent of voters had decided to not to vote or to change their vote as a result of the pre-election chaos.
However the problems of the ruling coalition are still no guarantee of success for a divided and weak center-left opposition, which often gets even lower approval ratings.
In what has become a convoluted legal battle, the center-right's election co-ordinator said technicalities in the court's ruling on Saturday meant the coalition could still launch a further appeal, which it planned to do next week.
Lazio, home to the capital, Rome, is one of Italy's most populous and important regions.
It had been considered an easy win for Berlusconi's bloc because the region's ex-governor, Piero Marazzo, a leftist, resigned after a sex and drugs scandal. But the pre-election fiasco has hurt its chances.
CHANGING THE RULES
The government's decree modified the rules on the lists for the elections, saying it was enough for party officials to be present in the building at the deadline for the presentation of candidates, even if the lists were not submitted.
But since then three separate courts have said it is not applicable to the upcoming election, prompting the fury of the 73-year old media tycoon who is planning a national protest rally of his supporters on March 20.
In a climate of mounting tension, the center-left held a rally of its own on Saturday in Rome's Piazza del Popolo to protest against Berlusconi's alleged attempts to bend basic democratic rules.
It said 200,000 turned out for the occasion, dubbed "Rules Day," but police estimates were closer to 30,000.
Berlusconi said in a television interview that the protest was "grotesque" considering that "they are trying to take away our (center-right supporters') freedom to vote."
Berlusconi, who is on trial for corruption and tax fraud, is at the center of another potential storm after newspapers reported this week he was being investigated by prosecutors for trying to pressure the head of Italy's telecoms regulator to close down a talk show hostile to him. He denies all wrongdoing.
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)