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Europe

Italian Election Campaigns Turn Cut-Throat

Italy is seeing a revival of vicious electioneering ahead of a general election held on April 9 and 10. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is trailing and is now turning to the far right in a bid to shore up support.

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Silvio Berlusconi: No capitulation in front of the Left

"Italy is the real sick man of Europe," wrote the newsmagazine The Economist recently. Zero economic growth, increased corruption and tax avoidance, isolation in Europe, a complicated security situation due to the war in Iraq -- all plague the country. Only Berlusconi-owned media provide a more positive picture.

Italy's poor health is just one reason why election campaigns are more vicious there than anywhere else in Europe. "Italy is seeing a revival of cut-throat electioneering," said Andreas Maurer, an expert on Italy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. He explained that campaigns are exceptionally heated given "that the two candidates don't particularly like each other."

The same old story with a difference

The right against the left, Communists against Christian Democrats -- historically, campaigners in Italy have always been at each others' throats. But 2006 is different. Italy's political landscape underwent a dramatic change in the 1990's after major parties collapsed following one corruption scandal after another. New parties sprouted and Italy's pluralistic political landscape looked like a colorful mosaic. But now, the situation has stabilized and there are essentially just two camps. The battle lines are drawn between the governing center-right coalition led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusoni, leader of the House of Freedoms, and a center-left coalition led by former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, leader of the Union.

A new law passed by the Italian Parliament in December 2005 is another reason why parties are campaigning harder than ever. Parties must reach at least four percent of the vote before gaining a seat in parliament. The threshold is likely to see the demise of many smaller political parties.

Rude, loud and ridiculous

"Anyone that has been following the election campaigns could be mistaken into believing that Italy is in the midst of a civil war," said Sergio Romana, a respected political commentator and former ambassador. He said many campaigns are "extremely loud, rude, ridiculous -- and not particularly informative."

The opposition accuses Berlusconi of economic mismanagement, corruption and involvement with the Mafia. Berlusconi himself is ready to win a vote at any price. He made headlines in an April 24 election speech, where he accused communists in Mao's China of having "boiled babies into fertilizer," a dubious attempt to link such repulsive practices to Italian communists who are part of Prodi's coalition.

Wahlen Italien Romano Prodi auf Sofa

Painted red: Romano Prodi


In fact, Berlusconi blames the left for just about everything that goes wrong in Italy. Judges, prosecutors, the employers' association -- "are all infiltrated by communists," claimed Berlusconi. "Only left-wing newspapers are reporting that the country is in an economic crisis," he added throwing barbs at his opponents' negative views. Berlusconi has even estimated the influence of communist journalists to be 85 percent. How he came to that figure is anyone's guess, given that Berlusconi's media empire controls nearly all of Italy's TV stations.

Rubbing shoulders with fascists

Only Berlusconi's own television stations are reporting his lead in election opinion polls. A quarter of all voters appear to be undecided. Scratching the bottom of the political barrel, Berlusconi has created a wide coalition of partners with rather questionable policies. They include the hard-right "Alternativa Soziale" led by Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and even neo-fascists and Holocaust deniers such as Roberto Fiore.

In an address last month, Berlusconi personally spoke out against immigration. "I do not want Italy to become a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country," he said. In 2002, Berlusconi's government put in place a tough immigration policy, allowing only immigrants with job contracts to obtain a residency permit.

"It is quite possible that Berlusconi's immigration policy will see him pick up votes from the middle-class," explained Andreas Maurer. He said Berlusconi could still win the election. "A scandal from the Prodi camp is all he'll need to retake the lead."

A threat of violence?

Wahlen in Italien Demonstration gegen Berlusconi in Genova

Demonstrators clashed with police outside the venue where Berlusconi held an election rally on March 21


So far, Berlusconi has been able to count on support from abroad. However, in March, the US State Department said it was "greatly concerned about Italy's security situation," referring to violent street clashes between left extremists and police in a rally by fascists in Milan that left 18 people injured.

The US government warned that violence in Italy could erupt again ahead of the polls. Berlusconi blamed the "leftist intellectuals with their political agenda" of organizing the violent rallies, adding that they were motivated by "hate" against the middle-right. At least, that's the explanation he gave after prosecutors filed new charges against him.

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