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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 07:47 GMT
Poll race tests lacklustre Prodi
Italians go to the polls in April to decide whether Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi or his left-of-centre opponent Romano Prodi will lead the next government. The BBC's Mark Duff in Milan looks at Mr Prodi's uphill struggle to woo voters.

Romano Prodi. File photo
Mr Prodi has to keep a broad spectrum of interests together
A veteran of court battles, Silvio Berlusconi has chutzpah, charm - a certain charisma.

By contrast Mr Prodi is rather uninspiring, known as "the Professor" - hardly the nickname of an A-List party animal - and not renowned for communication skills.

The Professor tag - which dates back to his years teaching economics at Bologna University - should, though, be one of Mr Prodi's plus points.

The former president of the European Commission came to power before as a non-party bureaucrat, respected for his expertise on the economy and industrial policy.

Before his government fell to insider bickering, he had been credited with doing a pretty good job - if not perhaps forcefully enough.

With the Italian economy currently grumbling along at zero growth, and with Italians feeling decidedly poorer than they did in 2001, all things being equal, that record should stand Mr Prodi in good stead.

The economic programme he has outlined for a centre-left government has won qualified approval from several respected commentators.

He has committed himself to cut unit labour costs, slim down the country's overweight bureaucracy, increase competition and gradually reduce the budget deficit.

There is, though, no word on reforming the unions, the professions or the public sector.

'Walking tightrope'

And there is the rub. Mr Prodi simply could not afford to alienate the vested interests within his own alliance by including those elements.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. File photo
Mr Berlusconi has survived numerous political storms

Recent opinion polls show the Left's lead starting to look decidedly wobbly and Mr Berlusconi's own party - Forza Italia - making a comeback.

Mr Prodi's political weakness is pitiful - especially when compared with his rival for top office.

Mr Berlusconi was able to steamroller through his action plan for government without bothering about the niceties of consulting his allies on the political right.

Mr Prodi - by contrast - finds himself walking a tightrope to avoid upsetting his fractious allies, who at times disagree on everything from the environment to the rights of same-sex and unmarried couples.

Not for nothing is the new symbol of the leftist coalition, the Union, a rainbow. Its members range from a former Trotskyite who has argued that it is fair enough for Iraqi insurgents to shoot Italian troops to Catholic centrists who kow-tow to every nod and wink on social policy from the Vatican.

Mr Prodi does not lead his own party - he is the creature of other forces.

Prodi's 'tome'

Just look at - or weigh - the programmes offered by the rival camps.

Mr Berlusconi's manifesto is short, sharp, to the point: an eight-point plan led by tax cuts - very similar to what he offered last time round.

Mr Prodi has had to endure months of wrangling to ensure that none of his supporters can take exception to a single comment or comma of his programme for government.

The result: a tome that fills hundreds of pages and is riddled with plenty of ambiguities for mischief-mongers on the right to exploit.

Rail row

A controversial new high-speed rail link beneath the Alps between the northern city of Turin and the French city of Lyon exemplifies the problems Mr Prodi faces.

Local communities and anti-globalisation protesters want to halt the rail project - as do the Greens and the third biggest party in his alliance, the hardline Communist Refoundation. Others on the left support it.

To avoid unseemly rows, the Union's manifesto drafters made no mention of it - allowing both sides to argue that they had carried the day.

Cue a field day for Mr Berlusconi's allies - who argued that the left was showing once again that it could not be trusted with government.

Mr Prodi tried to prevent any further damage by announcing that the project would continue at all costs.

But he will not have needed reminding that it was Communist Refoundation which orchestrated his fall from power in 1998.

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