updated 3/29/2010 2:03:38 PM ET 2010-03-29T18:03:38

Early projections in Italy on Monday showed Premier Silvio Berlusconi's party holding off a challenge by the center-left opposition in regional elections held across the country.

The projections at the end of two days of balloting indicate that Berlusconi's conservatives held onto the two regions they controlled and snatched two away from the opposition. Berlusconi's forces were neck-and-neck with the opposition in three crucial races, including the Lazio region around the capital.

The center-left opposition is seen holding onto six regions, including Tuscany and Umbria, which are part of its traditional stronghold, according to the projections. The projections shown on state-TV RAI were based on a tiny percentage of the 49,000 polling stations across the country. A total of 13 regions are up for grabs.

With around 41 million Italians eligible to cast ballots — out of a population of 60 million — the election was seen as an important test for Berlusconi. The premier, two years into the current government, has urged Italians to show their backing for him.

Approval rating has fallen
Berlusconi is coming off a lackluster period that has seen his approval rating fall. He hopes that a strong showing will effectively renew his mandate and give him momentum to push through controversial reforms, including overhauling the justice system.

For the main opposition Democratic Party, a good result would invigorate its leadership and embolden it in its challenge to Berlusconi.

Berlusconi stepped up his campaign in the last couple of weeks. The premier rallied his supporters to a big demonstration in Rome, made numerous media appearances and went on the offensive against his rivals, branding the center-left an undemocratic force unfit for government.

Voter turnout stood at 65 percent — high by the standards of many Western democracies, but 7 percent lower than the last Italian regional elections in 2005.

Renato Mannheimer, a top pollster, wrote in Monday's Corriere della Sera that a sentiment of disaffection toward politics has been on the rise for months.

"Dissatisfaction toward politics is actually widespread even among those who, in the end, did go to the polls. And this sentiment of detachment toward politics cannot be overlooked," he said.

An electoral campaign dominated by scandals and legal wrangling over list registrations has added to the sentiment. Analysts note that the political class failed to focus on what most concerns Italian citizens: the fear of job loss amid the lingering economic crisis.

Thirteen of Italy's 20 regions are up for grabs.

Going into the vote, Berlusconi's conservatives held Veneto, which includes Venice, and Lombardy, which includes financial capital Milan. The remaining 11 regions were in the hands of the center-left.

In Lazio, the race was marred by a registration mix up that prevented a list of Berlusconi candidates from running. But the center-left also had to overcome its own problems as the center-left governor quit in shame last year amid a scandal of cocaine and transsexual prostitutes. Turnout in Lazio dropped about 10 percent — more than it did nationwide and among the sharpest drops across the country.

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