Italian Premier Enrico Letta savored a sorely-needed boost Monday for his fragile coalition, vowing to press ahead with his efforts to revive the stagnant economy after his center-left party trounced rivals backed by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi in Rome's mayoral races and other local contests across the country.
Ex-premier Berlusconi's conservative party, which is the linchpin in the tense, 6-week-old government coalition, suffered stinging defeats, losing in all 16 main races in provincial capitals in the mayoral runoffs. Weakened recently by drawn-out infighting, Letta's center-left Democratic Party had a particularly sweet triumph in Rome, where Berlusconi had personally campaigned for the unsuccessful incumbent.
After weeks of political gridlock following inconclusive national elections in February, the Democratic Party was compelled to ask Berlusconi's forces to help form a coalition government.
The string of wins in mayoral elections on Sunday and Monday "reinforces the plan of a broad coalition, and pushes me, pushes us to work even more," Letta told reporters. The premier said he would use the momentum to make headway in creating jobs to battle Italy's soaring unemployment, especially among young people. Letta is pressing for a European-wide strategy to revive the economy on the continent.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno quickly conceded defeat in his bid for a second term, glumly acknowledging a landslide victory by center-left challenger Ignazio Marino. With ballots from practically all polling stations counted, Marino had won about 64 percent of the vote and Alemanno 36 percent.
Alemanno told reporters that he had congratulated Marino, a 58-year-old surgeon who performed liver transplants for years in the U.S. and Sicily before he jumped into politics in 2006. In his laconic style, the former neo-Fascist street fighter, who in 2008 became Rome's first right-wing mayor in decades, described the losses by Berlusconi's People of Freedom party as "not positive."
"It's obvious that the political reflection will be loud and clear," Alemanno said, referring to national as well as local leadership of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party. But he thanked Berlusconi for campaigning for him.
Alemanno ran Rome with an aloof style, and during the campaign was dogged by patronage scandals tainting several municipal agencies.
In his victory speech, Marino said he would aim for a "personal" style of administering the city of 2.8 million people and promised that under his tenure, city hall, atop the ancient Capitoline Hill, would be a place where "merit is rewarded."
Letta's Democratic Party swept all significant races in the runoffs, including in the northern town of Brescia, a traditionally conservative stronghold where a campaign rally led by Berlusconi saw such tension between the two camps that riot police had to separate supporters on both sides.
The Democrats were the largest vote-getter overall in national elections in February, but failed to win control of both chambers of Parliament.
At Alemanno's subdued campaign headquarters, a close political aide to Berlusconi, Maurizio Gasparri, was asked by Sky TG24 TV if local People of Freedom candidates might have paid the price in a party dominated by the media mogul's persona.
"We need to be better rooted in the territory," Gasparri replied, calling the mayoral race defeats "a negative judgment upon which we must reflect."
Referring to his Democratic Party, Marino said he hoped his victory in Rome would be the start of a recovery of "moral leadership" for the entire party. The party's new leader, Guglielmo Epifani, a former union leader, told Sky that if his party capitalizes "intelligently" on the wins, the center-left can be reinvigorated.
The mayoral races saw a marked worsening of voter apathy compared to the parliamentary elections and even the first round of balloting two weeks earlier.
Rome saw a particularly dismal turnout. Just under 45 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in the capital, down from 52.8 percent in the first round.
Opinion polls have shown a steady dip in public confidence that politicians are up to the task of governing them and tackling stubborn challenges, including rising joblessness.
Marino said the low turnout in the capital reflects all those "disillusioned by the ruling class."
Monday also saw the end of first-round mayoral races on the island of Sicily. Hours after polls closed, official results weren't yet available.