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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 18:43 GMT
Italy heads for personality-led elections
Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi: Dogged by image problem
By David Willey in Rome

Italians will be going to the polls in a general election in early May and, for the first time since the fall of fascism in Italy, they will be voting not just for political parties but for a political leader.

The two candidates already making their election promises from billboards all over the country are, on the left, Francesco Rutelli, and on the right, opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi.

Mr Rutelli, 45, Mayor of Rome for the past eight years and a newcomer to national politics, is campaigning on his success as a local administrator.

Mr Berlusconi, 63, is the richest man in Italy, owner of a TV and media empire, founder of a new political party called Forza Italia, whose victory in the 1994 election swept him briefly to office as prime minister.

Under Italy's post-war constitution - custom-designed to prevent either the fascists returning to power or allowing the communists to replace them - Italians have rarely had the privilege of electing their government leader directly.

It always used to be the parties who had the last word and one political party in particular - the now defunct Christian Democrats - which made all the vital appointments and decisions.

Unequal battle

Now, after nearly a decade of experience of direct elections of local leaders - city mayors - it is taken for granted that the will of the people must also prevail in choosing the man who is to lead the country.

Francesco Rutelli
Francesco Rutelli: A newcomer to national politics
Promised electoral reform has not materialised, but the personality cult has now taken over in Italian politics.

And although in theory the next prime minister could be someone else, in practice the choice is between Mr Rutelli and Mr Berlusconi.

In many ways it is an unequal electoral battle.

Mr Berlusconi - with his three commercial TV channels and two newspapers to plug his electoral messages - already has a clear lead over his opponent according to opinion polls.

But the gap is narrowing and when the campaign gets seriously under way, undecided voters could swing the result either way.

'Pretty Boy'

Mr Rutelli has hired a high-profile American political PR adviser, Stanley Greenberg, to co-ordinate his campaign.

Mr Greenberg is a pollster and strategist with a string of notable electoral successes behind him - having helped Bill Clinton in 1992, Tony Blair in 1995 and Gerhard Schroeder and Thabo Mbeki in 1998.

He was also adviser to the unlucky Al Gore who narrowly lost to George W. Bush in December last year.

Italians are electing a leader directly, for the first time since the fall of Fascism
Mr Rutelli has charm and good looks - an important asset in appearance-conscious Italy - as well as a long political record as a former radical and Green.

His weakness is that he does not come from the old Italian Communist Party whose heirs, the PDS, lead the left-wing Olive Tree coalition which has governed the country for the past five years.

Mr Berlusconi dismisses him as a "Pretty Boy".

But semi-bald Mr Berlusconi also has an image problem. His first election posters showed him in a more youthful mode with considerably more hair on his head than he has nowadays and this was mocked mercilessly by the left.

More hair

Mr Berlusconi's latest posters show a more mature current portrait of him beaming down at voters as a potential "working class prime minister".

His election posters bear simple, comforting messages such as: Protect Nature or Lower Taxes and Safer Cities or Easier Adoptions.

They have been easy targets of ridicule: one spoof poster showed Mr Berlusconi (the target of several current prosecutions for tax fraud) behind prison bars with the "Safer Cities" caption; another offered the caption "More Hair For Everyone".

Mr Berlusconi also has US strategy advisers.

He was in Florida for a few days during the recent US presidential election to pick up some tips on image control at first hand.

He appears unworried by attempts by the present left-wing administration to hustle new legislation through parliament dealing with conflict of interest when public office holders like himself have huge private business interests.

So far there is no provision under Italian constitutional law forcing wealthy politicians such as Mr Berlusconi to place their financial assets in a "blind trust" if they become prime minister.

Mr Berlusconi blandly promises electors: "You can trust me!"

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26 Sep 00 | Europe
Coalition pins hopes on Rutelli
26 Apr 00 | Europe
Italian prime minister sworn in
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