By Steve Scherer and Giselda Vagnoni
ROME (Reuters) - An election in Italy's region of Sicily on Sunday could give clues to how the center-right will fare in national polls early next year, the first for 18 years in which it will not be led by former premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Four million Sicilians are due to elect a new regional government for the semi-autonomous island, which has often been a harbinger for the fortunes of the center-right nationally. When Berlusconi became prime minister for a second time in a 2001 landslide, he took all of Sicily's 61 voting precincts.
Ending months of speculation about his political future, Berlusconi confirmed on Wednesday that he would not stand in 2013 parliamentary polls in which voters will choose a successor to Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government.
That leaves the focus in Sicily on his struggling People of Freedom (PDL) party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo.
"This is an extremely important vote for the center-right. If the PDL candidate wins, it will show that the party has life even without Berlusconi," said Maurizio Pessato, vice chairman of the SWG polling institute.
Voters angered by Italy's deep economic slump could be hard to win over for PDL secretary Angelino Alfano, the 41-year-old Sicilian tipped to follow Berlusconi as center-right leader.
During the decade in which the center-right dominated Italian politics, Italy's average annual growth rate was the lowest in the European Union.
The euro zone's third-largest economy fell into recession last year and Monti's new taxes to curb the budget deficit and rein in borrowing have further hurt households. At more than 10 percent, joblessness is the highest since at least 2004.
Sicily is even worse off. Unemployment in the island at the tip of the Italian boot is 19.5 percent, almost twice the national level, rising to nearly 40 percent among young people.
Italy's regional governments have been the focus of a rising mood of disgust with waste and corruption that have mocked the austerity imposed to combat the financial crisis.
Sicily itself, which came close to bankruptcy this year, is a byword for bloated public payrolls, wasteful administration and the ever-present shadow of corruption and organized crime.
A survey last week showed the PDL polling at just 14 percent nationally, trailing behind the center-left Democratic Party (PD) at almost 26 percent and the 5-Star Movement at 21 percent.
Mirroring divisions at the national level, the center-right in Sicily has been riven by factional infighting and its candidate for governor, Nello Musumeci, is being challenged by former local PDL party boss Gianfranco Micciche.
Musumeci, backed by Alfano, is leading a tight and fragmented race, ahead of Rosario Crocetta, the openly gay, anti-mafia candidate of the center-left - with Alfano's former party rival Micciche in the role of possible kingmaker.
According to a poll published two weeks ago, Musumeci was seen with 33 percent support ahead of Crocetta with 30.5 percent, and Micciche - who split from the PDL - at 17 percent.
The 5-Star Movement candidate is Giancarlo Cancelleri, a surveyor who has never held political office and whose campaign pledges to end patronage and clean up Sicilian politics.
Though polls show he has little chance of winning, he is well positioned to collect the protest vote and show the anti-establishment bloc will be a force in the next parliament.
"If Grillo makes a good showing, it will shake things up because the political establishment will understand that it's not just the polls that show the movement is growing stronger," Pessato said.
Sicily's costly system of political patronage led to fears it would default on its 5.3 billion euros of debt earlier this year, forcing Monti to impose cuts.
Outgoing Governor Raffaele Lombardo, who resigned in July, is under investigation for buying votes from the mafia, and the previous governor, Salvatore Cuffaro, is currently in jail for having aided and abetted members of Cosa Nostra.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)