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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 23:33 GMT
Italy leaders clash in TV debate
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) and opposition leader Romano Prodi shake hands before the debate
Both candidates want to win over undecided voters
Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi and his opponent in April's general election, Romano Prodi, have squared off in a live television debate.

The US-style debate, the first of two, also gave both candidates the chance to answer reporters' questions.

It was the first time the two had debated on television since the 1996 elections, won by Mr Prodi's centre-left coalition.

The debate is seen as chance for each side to win undecided voters.

Mr Berlusconi's centre-right coalition is trailing in opinion polls.

Trading accusations

The debate started at 2115 local time (2015 GMT) and lasted for 90 minutes.

You've been in government for five years and you speak as if you were the opposition
Romano Prodi

Mr Berlusconi launched his attack by saying that his opponent's bloc was dominated by communists.

"He (Mr Prodi) has a coalition that is not only quarrelsome between the various parties that are part of it, but also a coalition that uses Professor Prodi as a frontman," Mr Berlusconi said.

In his turn, Mr Prodi criticised the record of Mr Berlusconi's government, saying "it brought in only the laws you were interested in".

"You've been in government for five years and you speak as if you were the opposition. How can you carry out such a deception on the country?" Mr Prodi said.

We have carried out more reforms than all the previous governments in the history of the republic put together
Silvio Berlusconi

He also attacked the prime minister on the issue of the alleged conflict of interest stemming from prime minister's media empire.

Mr Berlusconi fired back: "Really, what cheek! In five years we have carried out more reforms than all the previous governments in the history of the republic put together."

A moderator oversaw the proceedings and two journalists asked questions in turn.

The Italian media had earlier criticised the format of the debate, with one newspaper, Il Tempo, saying viewers would be "anaesthetised by the rules".

Stormed off

Mr Prodi's Union coalition is ahead in opinion polls, but about 24% of Italian voters are still undecided, according to a poll in the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The debate was seen as an opportunity for Mr Berlusconi to regain his composure after a ragged few days, says the BBC's Christian Fraser in Rome.

On Monday, Mr Berlusconi stormed off a TV show after the interviewer asked him about his business affairs and the Iraq conflict.

Three days earlier prosecutors requested his indictment on corruption charges. Mr Berlusconi denies the charges.

The second debate will take place just days before the election - which is due on 9 and 10 April.


SEE ALSO:
Berlusconi relishes power of TV
23 Feb 06 |  Europe
Profile: Silvio Berlusconi
10 Mar 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
22 Feb 06 |  Country profiles


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