ROME (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi's figure looms large over Rome's mayoral elections this weekend, even though the former premier isn't among the 19 candidates running.
The vote is very much a test of Berlusconi's enduring political influence and voter sentiment over the uneasy national government made up of his center-right forces and the center-left that was formed following inconclusive February elections.
Rome is also the first big city up for grabs since the grassroots anti-establishment 5-Star Movement took a quarter of the votes in the February vote.
While local issues don't necessarily mirror nationwide concerns, how Berlusconi's candidate, incumbent Mayor Gianni Alemanno, fares is being watched as a measure of his political weight amid his continuing legal woes: Berlusconi faces a ban from holding public office for five years, if his recent tax fraud conviction is upheld on final appeal and a verdict is due soon in his sex-for-hire trial.
"There is a big question mark about how much Berlusconi is recovering" after losing his comeback bid for premier in February, political analyst Massimo Franco said. Another question is how much the center-left under Premier Enrico Letta has lost ground after making the unusual deal with Berlusconi's forces, while a third unknown is the strength of the 5-Star Movement.
In an interview on Wednesday, Franco ventured that the biggest blocs in Parliament are "not so strong as they might have been two or three months ago."
While the media mogul refrained from campaigning for other mayoral races after his forces nearly came to blows with a left-leaning crowd at a pep rally in Brescia, Berlusconi made an exception for Alemanno: He led the mayor's closing campaign event Friday evening, with the city's eternal power symbol, the Colosseum, as the rally's backdrop.
Polls show that Alemanno, the first right-wing mayor since the end of World War II in the city where fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had held sway, is trailing the center-left Democratic Party challenger, Ignazio Marino, a former organ transplant surgeon.
Berlusconi turned his appearance into more of a platform to push his own national and personal agenda than a pep rally for the incumbent mayor.
Referring to his own judicial woes, Berlusconi took a swipe at Italy's magistrates, decrying what he called "judicial oppression." He drew lukewarm applause from the crowd of a few thousand, a mix of supporters waving his People of Freedom party's flag and of Romans who appeared unimpressed by Berlusconi, who seemed to lack the emotional and physical vigor he usually displays when in public.
A one-day strike by city transport workers might have discouraged turnout for the last day of electoral rallies.
Berlusconi also reminded the rally of his successful push to get Letta's coalition suspend a highly unpopular property tax in hopes of stimulating the economy.
Describing Alemanno as "serious and competent," he told the crowd to "get busy, go, pray and convert the people" so other Romans will vote for the mayor.
Alemanno blames bad luck for his uphill battle.
Severe spending cuts in an era of austerity frequently meant reductions in municipal services, and Berlusconi told the crowd that Alemanno was hobbled by offers he claimed were run down by previous left-leaning mayors.
The city's modest subway line — whose expansion has repeatedly been delayed by the discovery of ancient, buried ruins — has been suffering near-daily breakdowns or delays.
And then there was the snow.
Rome's first blizzard in 26 years shut the city down in February 2012. Consumer advocates blamed the city for failing to adequately sand or plow highways, despite forecasts for an unusual snowstorm. Alemanno claimed he wasn't duly warned.
Alemanno has similarly brushed off a scandal involving patronage in the city's sanitation agency, saying he's not directly involved.
Instead, he has again made citizen safety a main campaign theme. After his election in 2008, Alemanno kept his law-and-order promises, sweeping prostitutes off the streets, arming traffic police with pistols, and pushing for immigrants who commit crimes to be deported.
A neo-Fascist street protester in his youth, he was later a rising star in a political party which was the legal descendant of the outlawed Fascists. Alemanno stuck with the party when it transformed itself as a center-right one in the political mainstream, and eventually allied himself with Berlusconi and his People of Freedom party.
Challenger Marino has also run up against anger in the campaign.
Animal rights activists, including women with protest slogans scrawled on their naked chests, verbally assaulted him in the center of Rome a few weeks ago.
Marino, a surgeon, ducked into the doorway of a nearby embassy to escape the wrath of protesters upset over medical experiments on animals. Marino countered that his campaign platform was actually pro-animal, including a plan to transfer Rome's horse-drawn carriages, a popular ride for tourists, out of the urban center to city parks.
In his campaign to lead Rome, he has championed the struggle of the elderly and other low-income Romans to have dignified housing.
Running for the 5-Stars is attorney Marcello De Vito, chosen in a "primary" in which the movement's supporters voted online for their candidate. So far the biggest city with a 5-Star mayor is Parma, population 170,000. At a final rally in Rome's vast square, Piazza del Popolo, De Vito was awaiting the arrival of Grillo, a fiery speaker who mixes sarcasm, caustic humor and barbs and the established political class in hours-long monologues.
The other 16 candidates represent a broad swath, from tiny ultra-rightist parties to hardline Communists. One candidate is a monarchist who wants Italy to have a king again.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters face a runoff June 9-10.
Elsewhere in Italy, some 500 municipalities, most of them small towns, also hold mayoral elections.
Davide Ghiglione contributed to this report.