ROME — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition suffered a stinging defeat Monday in local election runoffs that have cast doubt on the government's ability to see out its term of office which is set to expire in 2013.
The electoral blow comes as the premier is engulfed in a sex scandal and is also involved in four trials. He faces charges of corruption related to the business dealings of his media empire.
In Monday's most telling result, the opposition center-left captured Milan from the center-right, which had ruled Italy's second largest city and the country's financial capital for almost two decades.
With almost all votes counted, center-left challenger Giuliano Pisapia had captured 55 percent of the vote — an unassailable lead over incumbent Milan mayor Letizia Moratti.
"A new political phase has opened," said the leader of the main opposition center-left Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani, who called on Berlusconi to resign.
But Fabrizio Cicchito, a leading parliamentarian from Berlusconi's People of Freedom party, insisted that "neither Berlusconi's leadership nor that of the government has been called into question."
Berlusconi had cast the weekend's runoff vote, which also included the country's third largest city, Naples, as a test of his national government's popularity.
Instead the poll has turned into a debacle for the 74-year-old premier's coalition whose majority in the national parliament remains wafer-thin owing to last year's split in the People of Freedom party.
The center-right's candidate in Naples, Gianni Lettieri, who two weeks ago had emerged in front after a first-round of voting, suffered a crushing defeat in the runoff against former anti-corruption magistrate, Luigi de Magistris of the center-left, who garnered almost two-thirds of ballots cast.
In elections in which 6 million Italians were eligible to vote, the center-right also lost in other major cities, including Sardinian capital Cagliari, and in the North, Trieste and Novara.
A female candidate captured Arcore for the center-left. Berlusconi owns a villa in the small town near Milan where he allegedly hosted sex parties that are the subject of an ongoing trial in which the premier is accused of paying an underage prostitute for sex.
In the weeks that marked a particularly acrimonious election campaign Berlusconi had travelled across Italy to support his coalition's candidates.
Most recently the premier had tried to drum up support for Moratti, accusing Pisapia, a former communist, of wanting to turn Milan, the premier's birthplace, into an "Islamic city," and of allowing it to become "besieged" by ethnic Roma and foreigners.
Berlusconi also appealed to Neapolitans to reject de Magistris, whom the premier has grouped with the "leftist" magistrates and prosecutors he says are responsible for his legal woes and are part of a plot to destroy him politically.
But Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of a newspaper that is part of Berlusconi's media interests, said there was no denying that the premier had suffered a "sound beating."
"Berlusconi made all the wrong moves in the campaign," Ferrara said.