Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 13:34 UK

Rivals pledge to revive ailing Italy

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Silvio Berlusconi
Mr Berlusconi has bounced back from several court cases

Silvio Berlusconi is a politician with a carefully controlled image. Nothing in his campaign is left to chance.

There are no unguarded interviews, no unscheduled photo opportunities and this year no televised leader's debate. Two years ago he performed poorly in a head-to-head with Romano Prodi.

His heart now beats with a pacemaker, but thanks to the hair implants and the wonders of cosmetic surgery, he looks much younger than his 71 years. There is nothing "grey" about the conservative Silvio Berlusconi.

On the podium he is the consummate performer. Of late he has almost moved into the stratosphere of celebrity. His campaign song, Thank Goodness For Silvio, was played some 16 times ahead of the weekend rally in Turin. In the audience tearful older women screamed "Silvio, Silvio!" until he took the stage.

'Selling the dream'

To outsiders the magnetism is baffling. But to Corriere della Sera columnist Beppe Severgnini - one of the more discerning observers of Italian politics - there is no mystery to Mr Berlusconi's success. "He is a very good salesman," he says.

"He sells the dream. The Italians see all sorts of problems in their country, from Alitalia to the garbage lying rotting in the streets of Naples. He is the multi-billionaire businessman, the Italian success story, someone who can solve their problems.

Naples rubbish
The Naples rubbish crisis came to symbolise the south's malaise

"He represents something deep inside the Italian soul. The eternal optimist. His love for aesthetics - food, football, beautiful women - he is someone who knows the Italians and the Italian psyche."

In his previous two terms in office however Mr Berlusconi signally failed to make that dream come true. His critics say he spent too much time passing laws to protect himself and his friends from prosecution.

If elected he will be the only prime minister in the European Union born before World War II - which perhaps explains why the image is so carefully managed.

"We are talking about a man in his early 70s," said Mr Severgnini. "He knows he will lose some of the younger voters. That's why on stage he is surrounded by the pretty girls, by young people - he has to portray this image of youth and freshness. He doesn't want old people around him."

Southern battleground

The polls say Mr Berlusconi's new People of Freedom party has a lead of between six and 10 points over the Democratic Party, led by his opponent Walter Veltroni. But Mr Veltroni told me he thought the lead was now down to three points. There are no polls in the final two weeks.

Walter Veltroni
Mr Veltroni spearheads a new party to woo centrist voters

For the first time in recent history, the election presents the semblance of a real two-party contest. Mr Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome, took a bold decision to split with the parties on the far left.

He has run an exhausting campaign. His tour bus, criss-crossing the country, has clocked up 27,540km (17,000 miles).

The south is seen as the key battleground where the centre-left might lose some key Senate seats in the wake of the rubbish crisis.

On Friday, Mr Veltroni was in Caserta, near Naples, scene of the recent mozzarella cheese crisis, speaking out against the Camorra - the local Mafia - and organised crime. Parties have accused each other of fielding candidates with Mafia links.

In truth there is little to choose between the policies of the two candidates. Both are promising to lower taxes and to cut public spending. The Italian debt is now 1,400bn euros (1,100bn; $2,200bn) - more than the annual GDP. The cost of paying the annual interest on that debt is around 1,200 euros per Italian - and all the signs point to the situation getting worse.

Mr Veltroni's answer to the problem is pure Barack Obama: Si puo fare ("It can be done").

"I honestly believe we are facing our last chance," he told me. "This is a country with immense potential and immense resources. But Italy has to change. We have to shed the debt and give this country oxygen, to breathe new life into the economy."

Wide spectrum

And so, the rival candidates emphasise the importance of the voto utile ("useful vote") - calling on people to choose one of the two main parties, rather than the myriad smaller parties that make up the numbers in Italy's fractious political system. The only way they can deliver the tough reforms they promise is through control of the Senate - yet the much-maligned voting system makes that difficult.

In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, the winning party is given bonus seats to ensure its majority. But in the Senate the seats are awarded on a regional basis. In the last election Romano Prodi's government won a majority of just two in the Senate, which meant he was constantly giving ground to his smaller coalition partners.

Opinion polls suggest Mr Berlusconi could win a solid majority in the lower house but he too will struggle to win a workable majority in the Senate. If the candidates are serious about solving Italy's many problems then a grand coalition could be the only way forward, though neither candidate is quite ready to accept that in public.

Perhaps this likely scenario explains why Mr Berlusconi has cooled the vicious rhetoric he normally reserves for his centre-left opponent. If the polls are right then after this election Mr Berlusconi might well be working very closely with Mr Veltroni - even if he is a former communist.

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