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Berlusconi closing in with month to go to Italy vote

25 january 2013, 18:28
0
Former premier Silvio Berlusconi's zealous campaigning is closing the gap between the centre-right and left a month before the Italian general elections, though the scandal-tainted media magnate still trails cigar-chomping former Communist Luigi Bersani, AFP reports.

"The right has certainly been boosted by Silvio Berlusconi's television campaign," poll expert Renato Mannheimer told AFP.

The three-time premier, who is angling for a return to politics in the February 24 and 25 elections, spent 63 hours and 19 minutes campaigning on 54 television and radio programmes between December 24 and January 14, according to La Stampa newspaper.

"Berlusconi is an excellent salesman. No one can match him on election campaigns," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of the Christian democrat UDC party fighting for a second term for outgoing Premier Mario Monti.

While Monti has been seeking to boost his polling figures by engaging Berlusconi in an open battle -- spending over 62 hours campaigning through the media -- Bersani has been keeping his bid low-key, spending only 28 hours and 12 minutes on air, La Stampa said.

"The right is catching up and we'll have to watch closely, because anything can happen in Italy," said Mannheimer, though the gap in voting intentions between the centre-right and left is "still between seven and 10 percent".

At the beginning of December, Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party had been paying the price for internal divisions and a fraud scandal, holding fewer than 15 percent of potential votes as the billionaire dragged his feet over whether or not to enter the electoral fray.

Once his decision to campaign finally came six weeks ago, Berlusconi launched a media blitz which saw the PDL gain around five points -- giving it between 18 and 20 percent of forecast votes at the latest polls.

A recent alliance with the anti-immigrant Northern League has boosted the centre-right to between 26 to 28 percent of the vote.

The main centre-left party, the Democratic Party (PD), has been the clear front-runner from the start.

However, while the soft-spoken Bersani still holds around 30 percent of the votes, he has suffered a slight dip in popularity as Berlusconi beats his electoral drum ever louder.

The PD's ally, the Left Ecology Freedom party (SEL), holds around five percent of votes.

"Bersani and (SEL leader Nichi) Vendola are assured of an absolute majority in the lower house because, as the electoral law has it, they only need to get one more vote than other runners to win 340 seats" out of a total of 630, said Roberto D'Alimonte, professor in politics at the LUISS University in Rome.

But the situation is far more complicated in the Senate, where the make-up is decided by separate battles in each of Italy's 20 regions. Four key regions are still to play for: Veneto, Sicily, Campania and the country's biggest region, Lombardy, a traditional rightwing stronghold.

"If Bersani loses just Lombardy, he will still have an absolute majority in the Senate. But not if he loses Lombardy and one of the others," D'Alimonte said.

In that case, he may be forced to seek an alliance with the centrist coalition led by Monti, which is currently credited with around 15 percent on the vote.

Monti would be unlikely to head up such an alliance, observers say, but he could snap up a key post in the new government such as finance or foreign minister, "a move which would reassure European partners", who credit him with saving Italy from the debt crisis, D'Alimonte said.

It is a scenario La Stampa newspaper's political analyst Marcello Sorgi sees as increasingly likely.

The professorial Monti may be keeping his distance from the left during the election campaign, but "he is beginning to envisage the fairly likely prospect that the centre and left will have to ally after the vote, to build the next government together".

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