Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling coalition was on course on Monday night to capture at least two regions from the centre-left opposition in fiercely contested elections but a historically low turnout denied the billionaire prime minister the ringing vote of confidence he had sought in his centre-right government.

After two days of voting for 13 of Italy’s 20 regions, partial results showed Mr Berlusconi’s coalition heading for clear victories in four, with the centre-left hanging on to six. Three regions – Lazio, Liguria and Piemonte – were too close to call by mid-evening.

The opposition Democratic party under Pierluigi Bersani, its fourth leader in two years, appeared to have avoided the resounding defeat some had feared, and claimed it was heading for a higher share of the vote it had taken in losing European elections last year and national polls in 2008.

But the real winners in the election were seen as the “no vote” by the third of Italians who stayed away, and the anti-immigration Northern League, which is allied to Mr Berlusconi.

The striking gains of the League in the north, where it convincingly won Veneto and polled well in Lombardy and Piemonte, came at the expense of the two main parties and could upset the fragile equilibrium within Mr Berlusconi’s coalition.

Ilvo Diamanti, professor of politics at the university of Urbino, noted the League had also made gains in centre-left strongholds in central Italy, presenting itself as the party of security that had gained most from fears of workers at the process of globalisation. The League was now both “ally and competitor” for Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, he said.

For Andrea Romano, head of the Italia Futura think-tank, the turnout of 64.2 per cent, perhaps a postwar low, showed that Italians were falling in line with the rest of Europe by rejecting outright what the main parties offered. He called the overall result a blow to Mr Berlusconi and “very bad” for the Democrats, which risked being wiped out in the north.

“Nothing catastrophic will happen to the government. The coalition will not fall apart as there is no real alternative to Berlusconi, but it does not strengthen him,” Mr Romano said.

Sandro Gozi, member of parliament for the Democrats, said that after a spate of personal and political controversies, voters were disappointed in Mr Berlusconi. “They are starting not to believe his promises,” he said.

But he also conceded that the Democrats had failed to renew themselves. “We are not ready to offer the competitive alternative that this country needs,” he told the Financial Times.

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