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Text by Benjamin DODMAN , , reporting from Milan, Italy

Latest update : 2013-02-23

With Italy's general election just days away, Silvio Berlusconi is using his unrivalled media reach to focus the political debate on a single issue: his promise to repeal an unpopular property tax introduced by Mario Monti's technocratic government.

After a 13-month spell under the technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, Italians return to the polls on Sunday with the centre-left coalition of Pier Luigi Bersani tipped to defeat Berlusconi's People of Liberty (PDL) party and his Northern League allies.

A whirlwind tour of television sets has helped the “Cavaliere” reduce the gap in opinion polls from 17 percent a month ago to just four percent when the last surveys were published on February 8. The three-time former prime minister is now hoping a last flurry of televised appearances will help tip the scale in his favour.

Italy's complex 'pigsty' electoral law

Italy's current electoral law is so complex and cumbersome it has been dubbed "porcellum", or pigsty, by the person who wrote it. The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, has 630 seats, while the Senate has 315 (plus four senators appointed for life). All elected seats are up for grabs on February 24-5. Seats in both chambers are allocated on a proportional basis, with a variety of thresholds designed to encourage parties to form coalitions. Whichever coalition comes first in the national vote is awarded a "majority prize" in the Chamber of Deputies, guaranteeing it has at least 340 of the 630 seats. "Majority prizes" also apply in the Senate, but on a regional basis, making it more difficult for any one coalition to secure a majority of seats in both chambers.

In a country where elections are fought and won on television sets, Silvio Berlusconi is an unrivalled competitor – not least because he owns most of the channels.

“Berlusconi knows exactly how to set the agenda and control the political debate,” said Paolo Bellucci, a professor of contemporary politics at the University of Siena.

In this case, the political debate has been restricted to a single three-letter word: IMU, the reviled property tax introduced by Monti's government (with, incidentally, the support of Berlusconi's own party).

Blaming IMU

By promising three weeks ago to scrap the unpopular tax and reimburse Italians to the tune of 4 billion euros, Berlusconi effectively ensured he would dominate the campaign right up to election day.

Since then, the IMU debate has been relayed almost non-stop on the media tycoon's main TV channels, Italia 1, Rete 4 and Canale 5, all part of his Mediaset company.

On the chat shows watched every day by millions of Italians, grandma's risotto recipes have given way to tales of families struggling to make ends meet, all because of IMU.

Out go the gorgeous (and speechless) girls in skimpy dresses that have long been a halmark of Berlusconi's channels, in come serious-faced experts explaining that the solution is not to reduce the IMU – as Monti and Bersani have pledged to do – but to cancel it outright.

And then there are the lengthy interviews with the "presidente" himself, accompanied by the warm applause of an approving – and presumably carefully selected – audience.

'Buying votes'

The IMU debate turned to farce on Wednesday when Berlusconi was accused of seeking to buy votes by sending millions of letters to Italian voters promising a tax refund if he is elected.

The letter, sent to households in key swing states such as Sicily and Lombardy, came in an official-looking envelope, headed: "Important notice: reimbursement of the IMU for 2012."

By Wednesday afternoon, several trade unions were forced to publish a statement urging people not to bring the letters to the local post office, following reports of elderly people queueing in the port city of Genova to recover their taxes.

“The letter contains an electoral message that leads the reader to believe there is a real possibility of obtaining some form of reimbursement,” the statement read.

Berlusconi's move sparked outrage among his rivals, with Monti warning him against “trying to buy the people's vote with the state's money”.

Antonio Ingroia, a former anti-mafia magistrate and leader of the left-wing Civic Revolution party, said Berlusconi had committed a crime and should be prosecuted.

As for Bersani, he likened the Cavaliere to a modern Achille Lauro, the notoriously corrupt mayor of Naples in the 1950s who bought votes with food and shoes  -- “albeit a stingier one," Bersani said, "because at least Lauro gave the people some pasta”.

Date created : 2013-02-21


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