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Italians Vote for Regional Leaders

April 16, 2000

ROME (AP) _ After a campaign heavy on personal attacks and light on discussion of issues, Italians voted Sunday in regional elections doubling as a test of Premier Massimo D’Alema’s popularity.

The vote also is seen as a measuring stick for media magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s conservative opposition. With parliamentary elections due by spring 2001, how each bloc fares in the voting for presidents and legislatures in 15 regions could influence which politicians will be pushed as candidates for the premiership.

Initial exit poll findings were expected late Sunday night.

Sunny skies in central and southern Italy seemed to favor a strong turnout for the Palm Sunday vote. Many people went to the polls from church, bearing palm fronds or olive branches.

Some 42 million Italians _ about 75 percent of the population _ were eligible to vote.

This year’s campaign was the first held under new rules that sharply restrict political TV ads. Berlusconi claimed the change unfairly targeted him because of his media realm. The new rules call for televised debates, many of which ended up being little more than exchanges of insults by party leaders.

``This has been one of the ugliest electoral campaigns in the already bungled history of our republic,″ D’Alema commented as the campaign wound down.

Electoral rallies and forums were dominated by often bitter exchanges between D’Alema, a former Communist who has headed a center-left coalition government since October 1998, and Berlusconi, whose center-right alliance includes former neo-fascists.

The media focus on how the national coalitions will fare in the election eclipsed the scarce debate on the business of regional governments, such as public health administration and transportation services.

The vote is the first time Italians have had a chance to directly elect regional presidents. Direct mayoral elections, which began in 1993, helped create a new class of influential politicians accountable first to the voters, not to party machines.

Five of Italy’s 20 regions chose to schedule voting on other dates.

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