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Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi waves during a rally for the regional elections in Palermo, Italy November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

(reuters_tickers)

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - A regional ballot in Sicily this weekend will serve as a dress rehearsal for a forthcoming general election, with the political dynamics on the Mediterranean island matching those being played out on the national stage.

Bolstered by the return of four-times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to the campaign trail, a resurgent centre-right is looking to reclaim its supremacy over Sicily and show that after years of scandals it is once again a force to be reckoned with.

It faces a fierce opponent in the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which has never won control of a Italian region and hopes victory on Sunday might propel it to success in next year's parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, the centre-left, which now heads both the Sicilian and national governments, has succumbed to feuding with leftist rivals - a fratricidal struggle that looks likely to wreck its chances of regaining power.

Sicily is one of the poorest regions in Europe, ranking 237 out of 263 in European Union competitiveness rankings, and has become a byword for bloated public payrolls, wasteful administration and the ever-present scourge of corruption and organised crime.

It is also seen as a bellwether of national politics.

The centre-right won all 61 seats on offer here in a 2001 national election when Berlusconi was at the zenith of his power. By 2012, with the mood in the country changing, Sicily shifted towards the centre-left, foreshadowing the bloc's subsequent victory five months later at a national level.

The 5-Star hopes the political winds are now blowing in its favour and that voters are ready to embrace its manifesto, which focuses on fighting graft, promoting green energy and offering universal income support for the poor.

"The vote on November 5 is like a referendum ... You are choosing between the future and the past, between legality and corruption," said Luigi Di Maio, the 5-Star's new national leader, who has campaigned relentlessly in Sicily for weeks.

CRIMINAL RECORD

Final opinion polls published before a blackout was imposed on Oct. 23 put the centre-right candidate Nello Musumeci on some 33 percent against 31.5 percent for the 5-Star's Giancarlo Cancelleri. The centre-left's Fabrizio Micari was seen taking some 16 percent, just ahead of the leftist Claudio Fava.

Since the release of the last surveys, Musumeci has come under pressure over candidates on his list, some of whom have criminal records or are awaiting trial for graft. The 5-Star says the scandal has given it a major lift ahead of Sunday.

While 5-Star and centre-right leaders have criss-crossed Sicily this autumn, the head of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, has kept a low profile, insisting the vote is just about regional issues.

Sicily certainly has its share of problems.

The island's economic output fell more than 13 percentage points between 2008 and 2015 and it will take many years before it recovers the lost ground. Unemployment stands at over 22 percent, twice the national average, and youth unemployment is at 57.2 percent, compared with some 36 percent nationally.

But should the Democratic Party candidate suffer a drubbing, it will undermine Renzi's standing within the party and underscore the cost it is paying for civil war on the left before the national vote, which is due by May 2018.

Although the centre-right is running united, it too has internal divisions. Berlusconi has resisted campaigning alongside Matteo Salvini, the leader of his main ally, the Northern League, whom he has dismissed as a populist.

But unlike Renzi, 81-year-old Berlusconi has papered over the differences and kept his focus on his main rival.

"The Sicilian elections resemble the national vote in one way. In Palermo, as in Rome, the fight is between us and the (5-Star), between our experience and competence ... and their utter poverty and incompetence," he said in Palermo on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Larry King)

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