Italy’s Lombardy region, Silvio Berlusconi’s stronghold for 20 years, is the main battleground for February’s national vote, with the Democratic Party pinning victory hopes on the son of a lawyer killed by the Mafia.
Democratic Party head Pier Luigi Bersani leads in national polls for the Feb. 24-25 elections, though Berlusconi’s coalition is gaining and could deny him a majority in the Senate, where seats are based on regional support. Bersani has tapped Umberto Ambrosoli to run for governor of Lombardy in hopes he’ll help boost Bersani’s Senate tally in a region dubbed Italy’s Ohio for its importance in shaping the vote’s outcome.
“The real battle is here,” Bersani, the center-left’s candidate for prime minister, said at a Jan. 19 press conference in Milan, Lombardy’s capital. “Our efforts and the energy we’re putting into this show the national dimension of Lombardy.”
Without Lombardy, which has 49 of the Senate’s 315 seats, Bersani would probably have to win the remaining 19 regions or seek an alliance with Prime Minister Mario Monti’s coalition to govern. Such a pact could strain Bersani’s ties with his union- backed partners, risking political instability in a country that has averaged almost a government a year since World War II.
Fifth of GDP
With 10 million people, Lombardy is the most populous of the country’s 20 regions and its economy is equivalent to the size of Austria’s, generating a fifth of Italy’s $2.2 trillion gross domestic product. The national vote coincides with a regional ballot in Lombardy to choose a new governor after the administration of Roberto Formigoni -- backed by Berlusconi and the Northern League -- collapsed after 17 years in power amid several corruption probes.
Ambrosoli, whose father Giorgio was shot dead in 1979 by the Mafia after investigating Sicilian banker Michele Sindona, is challenging frontrunner Roberto Maroni and former Milan mayor Gabriele Albertini for the governor’s position. Head of the once-separatist Northern League, Maroni served as interior minister in Berlusconi’s last government.
Ambrosoli, a 41-year-old criminal lawyer, is portraying himself as a political outsider who can restore credibility to a regional government tainted by corruption investigations. “Scandals at a national level and a regional one, where the center-right was ruling, have shown that those who governed were more concerned with themselves than the public good,” Ambrosoli said in a Jan. 22 interview.
Among the regional council members under probe are Nicole Minetti, a former showgirl and dental hygienist, for allegedly securing young women for Berlusconi’s parties, as well as Northern League founder Umberto Bossi’s son Renzo, who resigned in April amid an investigation into party financing. Both have denied wrongdoing.
Maurizio Pessato, head of polling firm SWG, said while the Berlusconi-Northern League alliance has a stronger base in Lombardy, Ambrosoli is helping keep the race close. Maroni is leading 35.2 percent to 34.5 percent, according to the average of seven polls this month. That’s within the margin of error.
“By betting on a victory by Ambrosoli, Bersani hopes that he can produce a knock-on effect on the national vote and ensure the prize of Lombardy in the Senate, which is key for governability.”
Under voting rules in the Senate, the winning coalition gets a bonus premium and is awarded at least 27 seats with the other parties sharing the remaining 22. In the Chamber of Deputies that premium is granted nationally, so the winner automatically gets 54 percent of seats in the lower house, increasing governability there.
Bersani’s coalition has the support of 39.2 percent of potential Senate voters nationally compared with 26.2 percent for Berlusconi’s bloc, according to a poll by Ipsos released on Jan. 22. Even if that prediction proves accurate, without Lombardy Bersani will probably fall short of a Senate majority.
Even carrying the region in the Senate may still not be enough for Bersani to win control of the upper house, according to the polls. The center-left may need to grab areas such as Campania, the country’s second-biggest region, or both Sicily and Veneto, where Berlusconi’s forces are strong. Bersani said in an interview on RAI 3 television today that a report today in newspaper La Stampa saying he would ask for a second vote in just the Senate if he doesn’t win a majority is “fantasy.”
Ambrosoli is running a low-budget campaign, having spent 186,000 euros ($247,000) so far for billboards in Lombardy, which extends north to the Swiss border. The Maroni-led coalition’s total budget is less than “a third of 1 million euros,” the Northern League’s Stefano Candiani said on the party’s Facebook page today. Still, Ambrosoli said he’s convinced voters are seeking change after almost two decades of center-right rule. “This time the center-left can win.”
Maroni, 57, rebuffed accusations of lower ethical standards in the center-right group, saying on Twitter Jan. 18 that he will build on his experience as former interior minister fighting organized crime. Maroni is trying to lure voters with a proposal to cut regional taxes and merge Lombardy with other northern areas to bolster their influence.
“My opponents are just talking, I have concrete proposals,” such as keeping 75 percent of tax revenue within the region, Maroni said at Cernobbio’s Villa Erba on Jan. 16.
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