Berlusconi faces grassroots fury over election loss

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 02, 2011 6:33 AM
Berlusconi faces grassroots fury over election loss

By Silvia Aloisi

MILAN (Reuters) - Angry supporters of Silvio Berlusconi's Northern League allies blame the scandal-hit prime minister for the center-right's crushing defeat in local polls and many now say the party should pull the plug on his coalition government.

"The real question is: has the alliance with Berlusconi become too costly for us?" said Giacomo, one of many Northern League voters flooding a call-in program on the party's Radio Padania Libera to vent their fury at the election result.

"I've voted for the League for the past 15 years but now I don't feel represented any more. Our leaders never put the survival of this government in doubt, but now they should think again," he said on Wednesday.

The anti-immigrant, pro-devolution Northern League is vital for Berlusconi's thin majority in parliament, but while that alliance opened the doors to national government for its leaders, it is now increasingly regarded as a liability dragging the party down.

Sensing that a sex scandal and three corruption trials, as well as an anemic economy, had dented Berlusconi's popularity, the League has distanced itself from the prime minister in recent months on several issues, including the war in Libya.

But that was not enough to stop a debacle in the local elections, where the center-right coalition lost control of the financial capital Milan, Berlusconi's home town, for the first time in nearly 20 years, as well as a string of other cities.

"LET'S DUMP HIM"

The League, which had hoped to cash in on disillusionment with Berlusconi's PDL party, was also hit hard, giving away once-unassailable cities such as Novara or Pavia to deepen alarm in the party over their links to the struggling prime minister.

Elections results showed the League lost around 60,000 votes compared with regional polls in 2010 in its wealthy northern heartland, winning less than 10 percent of the ballot in Milan and Turin.

"Let's dump this guy (Berlusconi) and all his shady deals," said Romeo, another caller on Radio Padania, the name the League uses for a group of northern regions it once wanted to split from the rest of Italy. "I don't think we should sink with him."

Umberto Bossi, the League's outspoken leader who caused Berlusconi's first executive to collapse in 1994, said on Tuesday the government would carry on but warned "we are not as tranquil as we were before."

Many commentators expect the coalition to implode before the next scheduled general election in 2013, raising the prospect of snap polls next year.

In a sign of growing tension, Berlusconi was forced late on Tuesday to issue a statement backing Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, close to the League and seen as a possible successor to the prime minister, for the third time in just over a month.

Many in the League complain that by supporting the billionaire media tycoon and taking up cabinet posts in what most still refer to as "Roma Ladrona" (Rome The Big Thief), the party has lost its identity as a northern-based force defending local interests threatened by the central government.

"The League is becoming a party like all the others, dogged by infighting and more interested in the big jobs in Rome than the concrete problems of its traditional voters -- workers and small businesses strangled by high taxes," said Luca Ricolfi, a sociology professor in Turin and Northern League expert.

"Berlusconi is radioactive right now and whoever is associated with him is paying a price, but the League has its own responsibilities in this defeat," he said.

(Editing by Jon Boyle)