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Italy: Berlusconi Fighting For Political Survival In Elections

Silvio Berlusconi (file photo) (CTK) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is one of Europe's most controversial leaders. A billionaire businessman, Berlusconi controls much of Italy's media market as well as AC Milan, the storied soccer club. But five days ahead of general elections, the onetime cruise-ship crooner is fighting for his political life in an electoral battle against Romano Prodi, the former president of the European Commission. The last official poll, on March 25, has Prodi ahead by 3 to 5 percentage points.

PRAGUE, April 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A stagnant economy, rising unemployment, and Italy's role in the U.S.-led war on terror are some of the major issues facing Italians as they head to the polls on April 9-10.

Yet despite being arguably Italy's most important elections in years, none of these issues has received much attention.

"The entire campaign has focused on the personality of Berlusconi: the left is against him, the right is for him. There hasn't been much discussion of the issues," says Jean-Pierre Darnis, an analyst with Rome's Institute of International Affairs.

But given colorful, controversial Berlusconi's personality, it is perhaps understandable that the campaign has centered on the man who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and whose empire is worth $12 billion, spanning media, advertising, food, construction, and sports.

Colorful Debate

On April 3, the conservative tycoon squared off in the last televised debate before the elections with his center-left rival, Romano Prodi, a former prime minister and president of the European Commission.

Like the election campaign, the debate featured little of substance but plenty of insults.

Prodi, a normally soft-spoken technocrat, compared Berlusconi to a drunkard and accused him of making up statistics to falsely portray the country's economy as healthy, saying, "[Irish writer George] Bernard Shaw once said that some people rely on numbers like a drunkard clings to a lamppost."

Berlusconi protested, but with little credibility. He, too, has often tested the limits of good taste during the campaign. He has repeatedly sought to revive Cold War fears, reminding Italians that Prodi's center-left partners include a small, unreformed communist party.

And last week, speaking before a public forum, Berlusconi went further. "They're still insisting that I said that the communists eat or ate children. They keep saying that," he said. "But read 'The Black Book Of Communism.' You'll find that in Mao's China, they didn't eat them but rather boiled them for use as fertilizer. It's a horrendous thing, but it's true."
"Berlusconi's image abroad has been so negative for so long that it's just not something that the center-left can use [in its election campaign]." -- analyst

In another bit of bravado, Berlusconi recently accused the media of bias against him. It was quite a claim from a man who owns Italy's top publishing house, one of its largest newspapers, its three main private national television networks, and whose appointees run the country's three public television channels.

"Is there something wrong with these newspapers that are all on their side, or what? Is there something wrong with the radio of the Confindustria [Employers' Federation] that attacks the government all the time, or what?" he asked.

Avoiding More Serious Issues

But while the 69-year-old's personality has dominated the campaign, analysts say the opposition has refrained from trying to exploit Berlusconi's negative image broad.

In the West, Berlusconi is often portrayed as vulgar and power-hungry, and whose clear conflict of business and political interests threatens the very idea of European democracy.

In the Muslim world, Berlusconi will be remembered for comments he made shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. "We should be conscious of the superiority of our civilization, which consists of a value system that has given people widespread prosperity in those countries that embrace it, and guarantees respect for human rights and religion," he told Italian journalists in Berlin. "This respect certainly does not exist in the Islamic countries."

But Darnis of the Institute of International Affairs says Berlusconi's domestic opponents have shied away from adopting the arguments of foreign detractors, whose criticism has come to be seen as anti-Italian. "Berlusconi's image abroad has been so negative for so long that it's just not something that the center-left can use [in its election campaign]," the analyst says.

The result, Darnis says, is a campaign that has eschewed controversial questions, such as Berlusconi's strong support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and on terror, and focused instead on pocketbook issues.

Both candidates are vying for undecided moderates. Their votes will hinge on simple, clear-cut issues, such as those spelled out by former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli of Prodi's center-left bloc: "We are for promoting employment and economic growth. We will not levy any taxes on family properties or businesses -- whether family businesses, big or small -- because we intend to promote work and growth, and certainly not hurt it."

Italy remains part of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized nations, but its debt-laden, export-reliant economy has been hit hard by the introduction of the strong euro and by competition from China.

Whether Berlusconi or Prodi, what the next prime minister can do to turn around Italy's long-stagnant economy is anything but clear.