Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi

Rome - Italy's Northern League will not let itself be “dragged down” by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party, its leader said on Wednesday as poor local election results intensified cracks in the ruling centre right.

Umberto Bossi, head of the anti-immigrant, pro-devolution League which is vital for the survival of Berlusconi's government, spoke publicly for the first time two days after the coalition allies suffered a big electoral setback.

Asked whether the ballot put the government at risk, Bossi said: “Don't get your hopes up.” He then added: “What is certain is that we will not allow them (the PDL) to drag us down to the ground.”

Italian media reported that Bossi has blamed Berlusconi and his attempts to pass laws to evade a string of prosecutions for the disappointing results in several key cities, including the financial capital Milan - Berlusconi's home town.

There, the centre-right bloc trailed a centre-left candidate who forced it into a run-off for the first time in 14 years.

Bossi said he was confident the Milan result could be overturned in the second round in two weeks' time.

But many commentators said that in case of defeat the League could decide to pull its support - effectively sinking the government - or increase its demands within the coalition to placate its increasingly frustrated voters.

Phone-ins on the League-run Radio Padania have been filled with angry anti-Berlusconi statements by Bossi's supporters.

Berlusconi, embroiled in a sex scandal and facing three corruption trials, has yet to comment publicly on the results of the local elections, which were held Sunday and Monday in 1 310 towns and 11 provinces.

He had campaigned frantically, turning the polls into a vote on him rather than local issues - but that strategy backfired, puncturing his image of political invincibility.

Analysts said that even though the centre right could fight back in the run-offs, the vote had already undermined Berlusconi's reputation as Italy's dominant political force.

They widely predicted political instability because the losses raised the pressure on the alliance with the League, which had already shown some strains - notably as the League opposed Italy's involvement in the Nato operation in Libya.

In a sign of growing tensions, the centre right was defeated five times in parliamentary votes on Wednesday. - Reuters