- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

ROME — Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to cut into the election lead of his center-left challenger Romano Prodi this week by accusing his rival of planning higher taxes for small-business owners and shopkeepers.

With less than a week to go before Sunday’s fiercely contested parliamentary election, the center-right Freedom Alliance headed by Mr. Berlusconi — at age 69 Italy’s richest man — is pitted against a coalition of Catholics and communists led by Mr. Prodi, a 66-year-old economist and former prime minister.

Mr. Prodi, who is also a former president of the European Commission, presents himself as a safe pair of hands compared to the flamboyant media mogul who, critics charge, has spent much of his five years in office passing laws to keep himself out of jail and to benefit his business empire.

Mr. Berlusconi’s support for the U.S. led-war in Iraq also has been deeply unpopular in Italy, contributing to a dip in support for his Forza Italia party since 2004, political analysts say.

The government says that if re-elected, it will withdraw all Italian troops by the end of the year. Mr. Prodi has pledged that if elected, he will seek to pull out troops “as soon as feasible.”

It is not clear whether Mr. Prodi’s timetable would differ much from that of the government if, as seems likely, Mr. Berlusconi is ousted from Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s office. But a Prodi premiership would place less emphasis on close relations with Washington while renewing ties with France and Germany, diplomats say.

Mr. Berlusconi focused his campaigning in recent days on Mr. Prodi’s proposed tax policy in an attempt to swing the 25 percent of voters who tell pollsters they remain undecided. Taxation is always a sensitive issue in a country where tax evasion is a long-standing tradition.

Mr. Prodi has accused his rivals of committing a “political crime” by saying he would jack up taxes on shopkeepers and the self-employed, groups reputed to be the most artful tax dodgers in the nation.

“We are reaching the epilogue of the electoral campaign, and Berlusconi never has strayed from the script someone wrote for him that is to throw mud every day, a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening,” Mr. Prodi said.

Mr. Prodi’s platform calls for a restoration of inheritance taxes, which were abolished by Mr. Berlusconi, but does not say at what level the tax would take effect. Italians traditionally pride themselves on the sacrifices they make to leave their children an inheritance.

Mr. Prodi also has struggled to explain how he would pay for a proposed 5 percent cut in employment-related charges incurred by companies, a move intended to increase flexibility in Italy’s job market.

The economy has stagnated under Mr. Berlusconi, but he can claim to have offered an unusual stability in Italian politics, leading the first government to have completed a full five-year term since World War II.

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