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Italy voters punish Berlusconi

VOTERS in Italy punished the conservative party of scandal-plagued Premier Silvio Berlusconi but rewarded his anti-immigrant coalition partner, nearly complete returns from European Parliament voting showed today.

With some 97 percent of the vote counted, Berlusconi's Freedom Party had 34.9 percent, down from 37.4 percent in the last Euro vote in 2004. The billionaire media mogul had predicted at one point that his party might snare as much as 45 percent and certainly at least 40 percent. Turnout was 60 percent.

Berlusconi's coalition ally, the hardline regional Northern League rose nearly 2 percent, to 10.6 percent. It was the driving force behind recent legislation making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant in Italy.

"This is our reward," said a League leader, Roberto Castelli.

Also making a strong showing was the small, center-left opposition Italian Values Party, which billed itself as the alternative to Berlusconi. It is led by Antonio Di Pietro, a former Milan anti-corruption prosecutor who is a vehement foe of Berlusconi.

The Values Party's strong showing "shows which side voters are on" in the balloting, which many commentators had described as a kind of referendum on Berlusconi, Di Pietro told reporters.

The 72-year-old Berlusconi spent much of the campaign fighting off scandal. He has denied having an improper relationship with an 18-year-old woman. His wife, who is divorcing him, had gone public with her complaint that her husband is infatuated with young women.

The big loser was the main opposition Democratic party, which took 33.1 percent in 2004 but now was winning only 26.3 percent.

Made up largely of former Communists, as well as center-right former Christian Democrats, it has struggled since Berlusconi's conservative forces trounced it in the national parliamentary elections last year to give the billionaire businessman and soccer team owner his third term as premier.

There was no immediate public statement from Berlusconi.


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