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Berlusconi's "party of love" holds election rally

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi led a rally in Rome on Saturday to bolster support ahead of regional elections in which his party’s chances have been hurt by bureaucratic bungling.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks to supporters of centre-right Popolo della Liberta (PDL People Freedom Party) during a rally in Rome March 20, 2010. REUTERSAlessandro Bianchi

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL) has been excluded from the March 28-29 ballot in the key Rome province, which has more than 2 million voters, after it failed to register in time.

Italy’s top administrative court rejected the latest appeal by the party to be reinstated on Saturday.

The mess-up could cost the PDL the central Lazio region, which includes the capital, but the centre right fears it could also have an impact in other regions.

An ISPO poll published in Corriere della Sera last week said 17 percent of voters had decided not to vote or to change their vote as a result of the pre-election chaos.

Berlusconi has blamed magistrates and the opposition for his party’s exclusion and called the rally as a show of force against what he said were dirty tricks to influence the election race.

“Love always wins over envy and hatred,” read the rally’s slogan on the podium in a central Rome square, which organisers said had gathered over one million people.

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The opposition, which held its own demonstration a week ago, said the number was wildly exaggerated. A Reuters photographer estimated around 300,000 people.

“We don’t often take to the streets but it was absolutely necessary to defend ourselves from the attacks of the left and its magistrates,” Berlusconi told supporters.

“We are here to have our right to vote guaranteed. With you, love and freedom will win.”

Berlusconi had backed a request by an ally whose own list was readmitted to the polls only this week to have the election in Lazio delayed by two weeks, but regional authorities on Saturday rejected his demand.

Lazio is one of 13 regions up for grabs in the vote -- 11 of them controlled at present by the centre left.

Berlusconi’s camp had been expected to wrest at least five of them from the opposition, including Lazio, but opinion polls last week pointed to a more uncertain picture.

Several ministers and PDL regional candidates attended the Rome rally. But lower house speaker and key Berlusconi ally Gianfranco Fini, who has become increasingly critical of the premier and the PDL, did not take part, saying his institutional position prevented him from doing so.

The regional elections are seen as an important test of strength for Berlusconi’s government, two years after its crushing victory in the 2008 general election.

A string of sex and corruption scandals over the past year have weighed on the 73-year old media tycoon’s popularity rating, which remains relatively high at around 45 percent.

Over the past week, he has been put under investigation for abuse of power after phone taps showed him allegedly trying to block political talk shows critical of his government on state television. He also faces two trials, for tax fraud and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.

Editing by Dominic Evans