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Berlusconi faces crucial election test

ROME -- Scandal-mired Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has raised the stakes in Sunday's local elections, equating them to a kind of plebiscite on how he is faring as the country's leader.

The most closely watched mayoral race is in Milan, an important power base for the media mogul where he stumped hard for the incumbent candidate from his Freedom People party, Letizia Moratti.

Another important city is Naples, struggling with mountains of garbage that Berlusconi had promised would disappear.

Italians could vote yesterday or today, with ballot-counting starting immediately after polls close this afternoon, and first results expected shortly after.

Berlusconi is battling back after recent opinion polls showed that scandals were starting to take a toll on his popularity. The 74-year-old premier, in his third term in office, has been spending much of his time defending himself in four criminal cases brought by Milan prosecutors.

In the most sensational case, he is on trial for allegedly paying for sex with a Moroccan teenager and using his office to try to cover it up. Berlusconi has denied all wrongdoing, including in other cases stemming from dealings in his multibillion business empire. He contends left-leaning prosecutors are out to get him.

With Berlusconi campaigning so hard for his party's candidates, especially in Milan, which hosts the soccer team he owns, AC Milan, voters could be forgiven for speaking as if the premier is actually running.

"I am convinced that Berlusconi will win on the first round," voter Andrea Martiri told APTN in Milan.

In cities and towns where no candidate clinches more than 50 percent of the vote, runoffs will be held in two weeks.

Other citizens wondered what the impact might be from the sex scandal, in which Berlusconi is accused of having sex with an underage nightclub dancer who goes by the stage name "Ruby."

"I hope voters will keep in mind what happened, all of the scandal tied to Ruby," said Daniela Vergara after casting her ballot in Milan. She also hoped voters would be indignant over what critics say are tailor-made justice system reforms pushed through Parliament by Berlusconi loyalists with the aim of helping him in his many judicial woes.

Nearly 13 million Italians were called to the polls in some 1,200 cities, towns and provinces across much of the nation. Sicily's vote was scheduled for later this month.

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