di Francesco Musolino
Rome, November 9 - New polls ahead of spring general elections in Italy showed the gap widen between the first place centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) of comic Beppe Grillo, while former premier Silvio Berlusconi's center-right People of Freedom (PdL) party continued its slide amid a raft of scandals. According to pollster SWG Srl-Trieste, the PD gained 0.6% with 26% of the populace likely to vote in their favor, followed by the M5S at 21%, which lost a point, and the PdL, which slipped 0.3% to 14.7%. The anti-graft Italy of Values (IdV) party held on to 3.3% of voters, down 0.8%, amid widespread speculation that its leader, former Clean Hands magistrate Antonio Di Pietro, misused party funds to build a sizeable property portfolio, which he categorically denies. The accusations, which became national news after an exposee by the respected investigative television program Report, prompted two high-ranking party members to leave the party Thursday, one of whom was Massimo Donadi, who stepped down as IdV House whip on Monday. Berlusconi's party has also showed signs of fraying since a raft of scandals were exposed this summer, culminating in the October arrest of Franco Fiorito, PdL caucus leader in the Lazio region, for allegedly skimming off millions of euros of public money for personal use. The case caused the PdL's Renata Polverini to step down as governor. Voters were further disaffected by a guilty verdict two weeks ago against the ex-premier and media mogul for tax fraud at his Mediaset empire. Meanwhile the center-left PD has reaped the benefits, rising in opinion polls across the country while its party leader Pier Luigi Bersani faces off with the upstart mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, in primaries later this month. According to poll numbers Friday, 49% of Italians think Renzi is capable of leading the center left back to the helm of the government, which as of last November has been led by economist and former European commissioner Mario Monti, a technocrat brought in to fix the debt-ridden country's finances amid an alarming peak in the euro crisis, forcing Berlusconi to resign. For his part, the embattled 76-year-old ex-premier - amid the flagging poll numbers for his party, an appeals case against his four-year tax-fraud conviction and an ongoing trial for allegedly paying for sex with an underage Morroccan prostitute - says he will sit out April elections and act as "a resource" for younger members of his party.