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Monday, 9 April, 2001, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
Berlusconi faces comeback battle
Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi: Back again after brief 1994 government
By European affairs correspondent William Horsley

The Italian elections set for 13 May are turning into a lively and increasingly close contest.

The race is between Francesco Rutelli, who leads the governing centre-left coalition, and the favourite - former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who leads the centre-right.

Francesco Rutelli
Francesco Rutelli: Formidable campaigner
One year ago Mr Berlusconi looked sure to win a landslide victory and make a triumphant political comeback.

After surviving numerous corruption investigations into his business dealings, and putting together a firm alliance around his own Forza Italia Party, his side was then more than 10% ahead in the polls.

Bad publicity

That lead has now shrunk to 3%.

Latest poll
33.5% undecided
46.8% of decided voters back Berlusconi coalition
43.8% back Rutelli coalition
56% think Berlusconi will win
Ipsos Explorer polled 1,200 people by telephone
Results published in La Stampa
One reason may be the embarrassing publicity given to the efforts of a judge in Spain to have Mr Berlusconi extradited there to face charges of tax fraud arising from his part ownership of a Spanish television company.

The European parliament, where Mr Berlusconi holds a seat at the same time as sitting in the Italian parliament, decided last week to lift his immunity from investigation.

And his opponent, Francesco Rutelli, who recently left his job as Mayor of Rome to become the candidate of the centre-left, has re-invigorated a coalition which had been seen as tired after five years in power.

He is only 45 and has proved a formidable campaigner.

Judicial shake-up

Mr Rutelli argues that the centre-left has been good for Italy by restoring the country's sound finances and taking it into the euro currency, and that he would keep up the economic reforms.

Mr Berlusconi promises sweeping tax cuts and the boldest modernising reforms of Italy's inefficient system of justice since the age of Napoleon.

The latest opinion poll shows that a clear majority of voters still expect Mr Berlusconi to be the next prime minister.

He has the advantages of huge personal wealth and control of several newspapers and TV stations which promote his cause.

It looks as if Mr Rutelli's only chance of winning is to convince the Italians that they should not elect for a second time a man whose personal interests are so closely bound up with his political ambitions.

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