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Italian voters stay away from polling stations

Italians stayed away from the polling stations in record numbers, signalling major disillusionment with Silvio Berlusconi, who will now be fretting about the threat from his right flank in the form of a newly bolstered Northern League.

According to early projections last night, the right-wingers looked to have won their first two regions, seizing control of the important northern region of Piemonte from the centre-left and also wresting Veneto from the Prime Minister's People of Freedom party.

Pundits suggested that, if the exit polls were confirmed, the power-swing in the ruling coalition would make it harder for Mr Berlusconi to push through his constitutional reforms. The 73-year-old, enjoying his third stint as Prime Minister, had been hoping to introduce a reduced number of seats in parliament and an overhaul of the judiciary, whom he views as left-wing and politically motivated.

The prime minister's spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, was last night putting on a brave face, stressing that victory in four regions “would mean we had doubled the number of regions versus five years ago”.

But the League's rise will worry the premier. The party's pugnacious leader, Umberto Bossi, has already labelled the rank and file of the PDL as “amateurs out of their depth” and he will only be more emboldened by a strong showing over the weekend.

“They will have their own priorities for reforms, such as more autonomy for the north of Italy, which means some of Berlusconi's may have to take a back seat,” said Franco Pavoncello, a professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome.

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