- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Conservative governments in Italy and Spain took a beating in local and provincial elections this week in contests dominated by a backlash against the war on Iraq.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s governing center-right coalition lost control of Rome, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party was defeated in Madrid province but managed to hold the city.

Mr. Berlusconi’s loss of Rome to the center-left opposition was a symbolic blow that made the overall result look worse than it really was, according to Italian analysts.

Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and its partners generally matched their local election performance of two years ago or showed a slight improvement.

In some major urban centers, the results were close enough to force a runoff.

“It’s too early to say that the tendency of two years ago has been reversed,” said the newspaper La Repubblica. “But the results … confirm a certain disaffection towards the governing coalition.”

Though local and provincial elections tend to focus on local issues, Sunday’s elections were the first chance for Italian and Spanish voters to weigh in on their leaders’ support for the U.S.-led Iraq war.

Both Mr. Berlusconi and Mr. Aznar were at the forefront of President Bush’s “coalition of the willing.”

Neither country committed troops to the fighting, but that did not dissipate a groundswell of opposition to the war among Italians and Spaniards.

There were violent antiwar demonstrations in both countries. In Spain, polls indicated that 90 percent of the population was opposed to the war.

Mr. Berlusconi in particular made the elections a personal issue, campaigning throughout Italy to defend his support of the war and denouncing the opposition as communists.

La Repubblica said the voting results did not amount to a midterm election, but were instead like a “medical checkup” of the health of his government.

The Spanish elections focused largely on the prime minister, who appeared at dozens of rallies to defend his stance on the war.

With the results still coming in yesterday, a coalition of the main opposition socialist party, PSOE, and the communists were gaining ground in regional administrations around Madrid.

Mr. Aznar, 50, long ago announced that he would not run for a third term in next year’s general elections. But analysts say his party will need to retrench if it is to meet the socialist challenge in the elections.

The other issue in the Spanish elections was last month’s unprecedented ban on the Basque leftist Batasuna party, which the government says has ties with the terrorist organization ETA, blamed for 800 killings since 1968.

The ban affected some 200,000 people who had voted for Batasuna in the last local elections. Analysts say the ban added to the anti-Aznar backlash in the Basque region.

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