Italy: A dull and dirty campaign

Silvio Berlusconi is as famous for being a media magnate as he is for being Italy’s Prime Minister, and his final TV debate with Romano Prodi beforethe general election turned out to be a political version of It’s a Knockout — though without a clear result. The Forza Italia leader was deemed to have done marginally better than in the previous round against his rival from the centre-left alliance, but the most recent polls (frozen by law two weeks before the big day) showed him lagging three to five points behind. Berlusconi pulled off a tactical coup by announcing an end to the equivalent of council tax in the final seconds of the debate, so Prodi was unable to respond.

Strategic coherence is another matter as thousands of mayors were left wondering how they would finance public services. Politics is not a glittering game show, even if the man his supporters call ”Il Cavaliere” behaves as if it is. In a campaign fought against a dismal background of a stagnant economy, a mounting budget deficit and growing inequality, voters have been hard pressed to make a clear choice. Both contenders are tired old faces who seem to have little to offer.

Berlusconi, despite his nickname, has not been chivalrous: having decided that the best form of defence is attack he has savaged his detractors, pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment and accused Chinese communists of boiling babies to make fertiliser. Brussels — bashing is an ingrained instinct. On Tuesday he plumbed new depths of vulgarity by calling opponents coglioni, which translates as dickheads.

Prodi has been as uninspiring as only an economics professor can be. But, with no party of his own, he holds together a fractious 13-member alliance ranging from Catholics to communists. He has some good ideas for boosting tax revenues by tackling the black economy and restoring inheritance tax. He will also quickly withdraw Italian troops from Iraq. Undecided voters — 23% when opinion polls closed — will decide this election. Italy without Berlusconi in charge would be less colourful. But Prodi would be a welcome improvement. Europe would be rightly relieved. — Â

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