Berlusconi loses ground

Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative coalition was reeling Tuesday from a heavy defeat in regional elections held across Italy, a ballot seen as a key test of the government's popularity ahead of a national vote expected next year.

The center-left won governorships in nine regions and the ruling center-left just two with final results counted for all but two of the 13 regions that held elections on Sunday and Monday. In those regions, center-left candidates were ahead.

"We have largely won, both in the number of votes and of regions (won)," said opposition leader Romano Prodi, who is expected to stand against Berlusconi's next year. "With this vote, Italians are asking us to get ready to govern."

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini acknowledged the opposition victory.

"It's unequivocal that the center-left has won," he said Monday night on a RAI state television talk show. "For (the coalition) and our voters, this was not a happy day."

But he said the result may have weakened the governing coalition's political power but "does not mean it should resign."

The vote was held as the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation mourned the loss of Pope John Paul II. Still, voter turnout was about 71 percent for the ballot in 13 of Italy's 20 regions, down from 73 percent turnout for the 2000 regional election, the Interior Ministry said.

Going into the election, the conservatives had seats in eight regions up for grabs, compared to five held by the center-left.

As the pope's health started deteriorating last week, politicians toned down what had been a bitter campaign and canceled all political rallies.

On Sunday, leaders from both sides, including Berlusconi, joined prelates in prayer at the Vatican, where the pope's body lies in state.

Calls for the election to be postponed out of respect for the pope's death were rejected by Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu. "The pain for the Holy Father cannot distract us from our duties as citizens," he said.

Associated Press

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Author`s name: Editorial Team