Italy: Silvio Berlusconi makes comeback in mayoral elections

The final round of municipal elections in Italy on Sunday showed a resurgence in support for 80-year-old former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and its center-right allies.

Berlusconi-backed candidates were ahead in projections based on actual vote count from the cities of Genoa and Verona, and an independent candidate was ahead in Parma, marking a significant setback for Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s ruling Democratic Party, or PD party, which is led by his predecessor Matteo Renzi.

Over 4 million eligible voters were asked to pick mayors in 111 towns and cities including Berlusconi’s heartlands in the north and the strongholds of the PD party in Tuscany and Umbria. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the anti-immigrant Northern League confirmed good results shown in first round ballots and are likely to win even in Sesto San Giovanni, a city near Milan known as ‘Italy’s Stalingrad’ for its historically strong left-wing leanings.

“A victory for Berlusconi’s candidates in some or most of the main cities could certainly have a short-term impact,” Roberto D’Alimonte, political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University, said in a phone interview before the vote. “It remains to be seen what use Berlusconi and his allies will make of that at a national level.”

The Berlusconi bloc is running at about 30 percent in nationwide polls, neck-and-neck with the anti-euro Five Star and Gentiloni and Renzi’s PD.

The mayoral vote tested the political mood in a country where economic recovery is still weak, unemployment high, and anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment is growing, fueled by waves of migrants from North Africa.

Gentiloni’s government is also struggling to tackle its latest banking crisis. It was forced to pass an emergency decree at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, committing as much as 17 billion euros ($19 billion) to clean up two failed banks in the northern Veneto region, the nation’s biggest rescue on record.

Italy is due to hold a general election in the first half of next year, though the rules that will govern the vote are unclear. A multi-party deal to make the electoral system for the parliament in Rome more stable unraveled earlier this month. The existing system is purely proportional and the main parties want to change it in order to produce less fragmented legislatures.

“The more likely scenario is that the existing system will be retained,” Federico Santi, a political analyst at Eurasia Group in London, said in a note on Friday. “This bodes poorly for political stability and reform.”