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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Berlusconi ahead in Italian race
Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia supporters
Berlusconi is holding on to his narrow lead in the polls
By David Willey in Milan

With just over two weeks until Italians vote in a general election, polls show Silvio Berlusconi holding on to a narrow lead over the governing centre left's candidate, Franceso Rutelli.

The gap between the two candidates is narrowing, but more than a quarter of Italian voters are still undecided, according to the polls.

Mr Berlusconi is one of Italy's wealthiest men and the owner of the country's three leading commercial television channels.

He has been getting about three times as much television news exposure as his rival - and he has come under strong criticism in some foreign media for his reluctance to deal with the conflict of interest issue, should he become the next prime minister.

The Italian media holding company, Fininvest, which controls Mr Berlusconi's media interest, said it will take legal action against the London-based Economist magazine over an editorial published on Friday.

Conflict of interest

The Italian papers gave prominent coverage to the Economist editorial criticising Mr Berlusconi for his failure to explain how he will separate public and private interest if he wins.

Italian election posters featuring Francesco Rutelli
Rutelli's left-wingers must reverse the opinion polls
The Economist also claims that Mr Berlusconi has not put his legal problems finally behind him.

The article contained "a series of old accusations" that were "an insult to truth and intelligence", Fininvest said in a statement faxed to the Reuters news agency.

One of Italy's leading political commentators, former ambassador Sergio Romano, writing in Milan's Corriere della Sera, says voters should not pay too much attention to foreign opinion.

However, he does urge Mr Berlusconi to meet Mr Rutelli face to face in a televised public debate, a suggestion the media mogul has so far refused.

Mr Romano also says that Italians should not shrug off too easily political opinions within the European Union, of which Italy is a leading member.

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See also:

20 Apr 01 | Europe
Death threats sour Italy campaign
26 Sep 00 | Europe
Coalition pins hopes on Rutelli
09 Apr 01 | Europe
Berlusconi faces comeback battle
09 Mar 01 | Europe
May date for Italy election
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