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>> The Financial Times


The Financial Times - March 24, 2010

by Giulia Segreti

With political tensions rising ahead of regional elections this weekend, Silvio Berlusconi, centre-right prime minister, has been thrown a lifeline by Italy’s bishops who have urged voters to act according to their Catholic conscience and withhold support from pro-abortion candidates.

A statement issued on Monday by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Bishops Conference, was widely seen as aimed at voters in the region of Lazio, where the opposition candidate for governor is Emma Bonino, a former EU commissioner well known for her pro-abortion views.

“It is on the primordial right to life that in this third millennium that the whole of society still has to carry out an examination of conscience ... in this context citizens must focus with much attention on each vote, both national and local,” Cardinal Bagnasco pronounced.

Elections are being held for 13 of Italy’s 20 regions in two days of voting starting on Sunday. Mr Berlusconi’s coalition holds only two of the 13 at present and had high hopes of capturing Lazio after its centre-left governor, Piero Marrazzo, quit last year after becoming embroiled in a blackmail attempt over his relationships with Brazilian trans-sexual prostitutes, one of whom later died in strange circumstances.

But latest opinion polls showed Ms Bonino narrowly ahead of Renata Polverini, a Catholic trade unionist whose campaign has been undermined by her party’s failure to register its list of candidates because the official responsible missed the deadline when he went out for a snack. Ms Polverini’s name remains on other lists, however.

Italy’s Catholic bishops have not shied from interfering directly in national politics before, but as Andrea Sarubbi, a Catholic MP for the opposition Democrats noted, the Church “risks transforming every vote into a referendum for or against the Church”.

Although regional governors are powerful figures in their own right, the elections are also seen as a vote of confidence in Mr Berlusconi’s two-year-old government following a spate of personal scandals and investigations into corruption involving close allies. A poor outcome for the 73-year-old prime minister could fuel internal struggles over who will emerge as his successor.

Ms Bonino, vice president of the senate, is a leading member of the liberal Radical party well known for her social activism. As a form of protest against the laws of the time, she asked to be jailed in 1975 for having had an abortion. On Tuesday, she said she had expected the bishops’ intervention but noted that abortion was nothing to do with regional politics.

Mrs. Polverini, who has made family policies a centrepiece of her door-to-door campaign, commented: “Cardinal Bagnasco’s words are high, noble and authoritative and must make us think.”

Massimo Franco, an editorialist for Corriere della Sera, a leading daily, saw the cardinal’s intervention as an expression of fear that Ms Bonino might win.

Campaign staff in the People of Liberty said Mr Berlusconi sees Lazio as a personal campaign and said the prime minister had cancelled events in other regions to help Ms Polverini. Mr Berlusconi, who has condemned some of Italy’s politicized magistrates as “Taliban”, has blamed the judiciary for his party’s failure to register its list.

Lazio is on the verge of bankruptcy, carrying an accumulated deficit of 10bn euros, mainly due to inefficient management of its health sector.

“I would like to bring Lazio in Europe and Europe into Lazio [and] adopt good European policies. Like in other regions, Lazio has such a farraginous administration that it becomes opaque,” writes Ms Bonino in her latest book Alphabet Bonino.

Both candidates agree on the state of emergency state in Lazio’s health sector which is currently run by a government appointed commissioner. “The only way to answer is to send incompetent administrators home,” says Ms Polverini.

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