* Centre-right suffer heavy defeat in Sicily regional poll
* Centre-left leads, anti-establishment movement sees strong gains
* Berlusconi attack on Monti deepens party splits
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s struggling party suffered a heavy defeat on Monday as voters turned against the centre-right in its former stronghold of Sicily, five months before national parliamentary elections.
The centre-left candidate Renato Crocetta, an openly gay anti-mafia campaigner, was set to be the next regional governor while there were strong gains for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
“We’ve won in Sicily, it’s crazy,” said Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the Democratic Party (PD), the main party on the centre-left, adding that the result laid the groundwork for real change in the national elections.
A record abstention level 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 picture was also confused by an outburst from Berlusconi at the weekend, threatening to pull his People of Freedom (PDL) party’s support from Prime Minister Mario Monti and bring down his government before an election 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.
With about 90 percent of votes counted, Crocetta led with 30.6 percent, ahead of the centre-right candidate Nello Musumeci on 25.6 percent, 5-Star candidate Giancarlo Cancelleri on 18.2 percent and Gianfranco Micciche, a conservative who split from Berlusconi’s camp, on 15.4 percent.
PDL Secretary Angelino Alfano blamed his party’s defeat on divisions within the centre-right but said it would not be set back by the result and would view the elections as a “rebirth”.
“The Sicilian elections teach us that there are two ways to help the left win: first by voting for a party on the left and secondly by separating the moderate centre-right,” he told a news conference.
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 the PDL has supported in parliament for almost a year, underscored the political confusion ahead of next year’s national vote.
In a rambling news conference on Saturday, the billionaire former premier, convicted of tax fraud last week, attacked Monti’s austerity policies, announcing that the PDL may withdraw its support and bring the government down.
That threat, just days after he had announced he would not lead the centre-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 centre-right.
Alfano, a 41 year-old moderate who has struggled to impose himself on a party built entirely around the domineering personality of Berlusconi, appeared to disown his patron and reiterated his own support for Monti.
He said the PDL had no intention of withdrawing support for Monti and that it was “comical to represent Berlusconi as the leader of an anti-Monti party.”
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 on a visit to 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. Yields on Italy’s 10-year government bonds reached around five percent, 357 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.
Former justice minister Alfano confirmed that he intended to stand in a Dec. 16 primary to choose the next centre-right candidate for prime minister.
He described the result for his party’s candidate in Sicily as “extraordinarily positive” considering the divisions and said he would seek to unify the centre-right and reach out to sectors of the electorate who abstained.