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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 13:01 GMT 14:01 UK
Berlusconi's poll fight ends with a bang
By Mark Mardell
BBC Europe editor

Silvio Berlusconi has made one final push to hang on to his job as Italy's prime minister.

Anti-Berlusconi poster
Berlusconi has fought back hard against his opponents' attacks

He told a rally in Naples that his opponents worshipped Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot. He has warned Catholics that the left includes "priest eaters".

He has promised to abolish the tax on homes, which pays for local government and which would cost billions of euros a year.

He has said he will look at getting rid of the tax on rubbish collection. And it might all work.

In Rome, supporters of the left held a much lower-key affair listening to bands, a comedian and their candidate, Romano Prodi.

He said that Italy had a "desperate need of unity". The mood was upbeat, but hardly wild.

If Mr Prodi becomes Italy's new prime minister, it will be because Mr Berlusconi has lost - rather than because of any huge enthusiasm for the former president of the European Commission.

Method in 'madness'

At times during the campaign, it has seemed that Mr Berlusconi is on the verge of losing it and his behaviour has looked petulant.

When he submitted himself to a rare tough TV interview and the journalist asked some hard questions he gripped his inquisitor by the hand, told her she was a typical leftie and a disgrace, before ripping off his microphone and storming off.

Italians tell the BBC News website how they will vote

He insulted Italy's leading business people, saying that they were "mad" and had something to hide if they voted for the left.

He complained that he had suffered like Jesus Christ for Italy and had worked night and day to improve the country.

He virtually accused magistrates investigating his affairs of being Communist stooges. He offended the Chinese by claiming the Communist party had boiled babies to make fertiliser.

He said that he couldn't believe that the left would win because there were not that many "coglioni" in the country - literally, it means "testicle", but you can choose whatever swear word you want that has the connotation of "idiot".

But there is method in his apparent madness. Out of scores of opinion polls, only one suggests that Mr Berlusconi is going to win.

But a very high proportion of Italian voters say they have not made their mind up, and there are almost certainly former Berlusconi supporters who are thinking of staying at home.

He hopes attacking the intellectuals of the left, and raising an atavistic fear of Communism will encourage them to make the effort to vote.

Feeling the pinch

Former US President Bill Clinton said: "It's the economy, stupid", and this is true of most elections. It is certainly true of this one.

Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi has fought a relatively understated campaign
Mr Berlusconi most definitely gets some votes for his rough humour and the way he is seen standing alongside US President George W Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin as an equal and a valued ally.

But he was put in power by people who could see that he was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire, and they hoped that he could do for Italy what he has done for his own companies.

He would argue he has made a decent start, cutting youth unemployment in the south, investing in big projects designed to kick-start the economy and tackling some of the tangles of labour law.

But the fact is that the Italian economy has seen little or no growth. For years, Italy relied on low wages to be competitive in producing textiles, ceramics and furniture and now they're outgunned by the East.

As one businessman said to me: "We used to be China. Now they not only have lower labour costs, they have better transport links and training programmes."

Many Italians say they feel the pinch by the end of the month and a surprising number of them blame the euro, which was introduced by Mr Prodi, both as a previous prime minister and head of the EU Commission.

But irony is not unknown in politics and he could be the beneficiary of these voters' discontent.

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