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A regional election in Sicily over the weekend could lift the party of former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, as the country gears up for a national vote next year.
The Sicily vote for a new governor is being seen as a dress rehearsal for a national election that is due to take place before June. The most recent polls for Sicily show that the candidate supported by Berlusconi, Nello Musumeci, from the center-right Forza Italia party, was gathering most of the support. But he's closely followed by Giancarlo Cancelleri, from the anti-establishment M5S party.
"A strong result for M5S and the collective center-right will mean a shift towards more Eurosceptic rhetoric and (former Prime Minister Matteo) Renzi may be forced to adopt tougher talk with respect to EU policies in the national campaign," Peter Ceretti, Italy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC via email.
Renzi's center-left Partito Democratico (PD) is currently in power in Italy but its candidate in Sicily, Fabrizio Micari, is third in the polls, far behind his other two opponents. Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, believes that this contest for Sicily's governor and assembly is the "last important electoral test" ahead of next year's general elections.
"The center-right is seeking to regain control over Sicily — a region it has governed for most of the past 20 years," Piccoli said.
Musumeci from Forza Italia is being supported not only by Berlusconi's party but also by smaller parties Lega Nord and Fratelli d'Italia. Independent of the outcome, Berlusconi, who is still president of Forza Italia, has been campaigning fiercely for his candidate and thus preparing the ground for the general election.
"He (Berlusconi) is using the campaign to unveil some of his political offering at the national level: a program based on promises of tax cuts, a tougher stance on EU constraints and illegal immigration, and a rejection of M5S's anti-establishment politics," Ceretti from the Economist Intelligence Unit told CNBC.
Ceretti believes the most likely outcome for the general election will be a "messy" coalition between Berlusconi and Renzi, which "will not be a positive for Europe, and is likely to yield poor policy outcomes."
Among many pressing issues, the next government still has to fix a migration crisis, moribund growth and a high level of unemployment and public debt.
Ceretti explained that Renzi sees the defeat coming and has not extended much energy in campaigning for his candidate Micari. "If the result on the island is particularly negative, Mr Renzi may press the government (led by his party) … to delay the upcoming national election for as long as possible in order to play for time," he said.