- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006

ROME — After a nasty election campaign, Italians are deciding this week whether to dump Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and opt for his distinctly less flamboyant challenger.

Defeat for Mr. Berlusconi would end a five-year government that is Italy’s longest-serving since World War II, and deprive President Bush of a staunch ally who has sent troops to Iraq.

If opponent Romano Prodi is slightly ahead and voters in the election today and tomorrow are in a foul mood, they have reasons: The economy is going nowhere, jobs are scarce and the health system is in crisis.

But Italians don’t seem too inspired by their choices: Mr. Berlusconi is a conservative media mogul and erstwhile cruise-ship crooner with a talent for saying outrageous things; Mr. Prodi is a center-left economics professor and former prime minister.

Both lead fractious coalitions of parties. Mr. Prodi’s Union ranges from pro-Vatican moderates to communists. Mr. Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms coalition includes Christian Democrats, former neo-fascists and an anti-immigrant party.

Mr. Berlusconi was elected on high hopes that his knack for making money would translate into a business boom for Italy — but economic growth has ground to a halt and even business leaders are turning their backs on him.

Mr. Berlusconi’s critics accuse him of passing a raft of laws tailor-made to protect his business interests, and ignoring urgent issues facing the economy — such as Italy’s rapidly declining competitiveness, high public debt and growing job insecurity.

The prime minister also has been kept busy fending off prosecution over purported corruption and conflict of interest in his media empire, which includes Italy’s largest private television network, and his publishing, insurance and real-estate interests.

Polling is banned before elections, but the last one, 15 days ago, gave a slight edge to Mr. Prodi, so the many uncommitted among the 47 million eligible voters could prove decisive.

The final days of campaigning saw a frenzy of mudslinging.

In a speech Tuesday to small business owners, one of his power bases, Mr. Berlusconi shocked the nation by referring to those intending to vote for the opposition as “coglioni” — a vulgarism that roughly translates as morons.

In their last televised debate Monday, insults flew.

Mr. Prodi likened Mr. Berlusconi to a drunk clinging to a lamppost for his constant spouting of figures to illustrate government accomplishments.

Mr. Berlusconi called Mr. Prodi communism’s “useful idiot,” saying he was just a front-man for the two small Communist parties in his coalition.

Foreign policy — which until a few months ago loomed large because of widespread opposition to the Iraq war — has barely gotten an airing.

But Italians largely lost interest when Mr. Berlusconi announced that all of Italy’s contingent, sent in after Saddam Hussein’s ouster to help with reconstruction, would be home by year’s end. Mr. Prodi had already made virtually the same proposal, and in the final debate he promised withdrawal “as soon as possible.”

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