Berlusconi grouping to make show of unity ahead of election

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Rome (AFP)

Silvio Berlusconi's rightwing coalition, which is on course to win the most votes in Italy's election, is holding its first and last public meeting on Thursday in an attempt to quell speculation of severe internal divisions.

Berlusconi, the flamboyant 81-year-old former prime minister and head of the centre-right Forza Italia (Go Italy), and the leaders of far-right parties the League and Brothers of Italy (FdI), Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, have not once met publicly in the entire election campaign.

After unsuccessfully inviting each other to their parties' individual meetings, the trio will finally meet for a joint press conference in central Rome, away from both the crowds and any party paraphernalia, just three days ahead of Sunday's vote.

The coalition is nominally working together to obtain a majority in both the lower house Chamber of Deputies and upper house Senate -- a challenge given the new complicated electoral law that combines proportional representation and first-past-the-post rules.

But the three parties are also competing against one another.

- Policy clash -

Forza Italia and the League, the two parties within in the coalition destined to pick up the most votes, are battling to come out on top in order to control who will choose the group's prime ministerial candidate, while FdI is lending its voice to the League's anti-euro, anti-migrant tub-thumping.

There have been clear political divisions since the very start of the campaign, lending the coalition the appearance of a marriage of convenience.

Billionaire media mogul Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for nearly two decades despite sex scandals and legal woes, is pushing a pro-Europe, moderate rightwing line.

Meanwhile both Salvini and Meloni -- who was in Budapest on Wednesday to meet Hungary's ultra-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban -- frequently rail against Brussels, in particular over the migrant crisis.

Each leader has their own policies for major issues like the euro, the EU, taxation and pension reform, while Berlusconi has shown a marked hostility to the neo-fascist CasaPound movement, which recently announced its willingness to support a government headed by Salvini.

Berlusconi has said he is "willing to meet all political leaders" but insisted that his coalition had "nothing to do with CasaPound, neither before nor after the elections".

Forced to join forces by an electoral system that favours coalitions, the rightwing parties have dug deep to find the lowest common denominator.

They favour the introduction of a flat tax with massive pre-tax exemptions, the blocking of migrant arrivals by boat, the forced repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of what they call "irregular" immigrants that have arrived and stayed in Italy since 2013 and pension reform.

According to the Sacred Heart Catholic University's Italian public accounts observatory (OCPI) their electoral promises would cost 136 billion euros ($166 billion) to implement.

Bocconi University economist Roberto Perotti has estimated the cost of their pledges at between 171 billion and 310 billion euros.

- 'Bizarre festival' -

While the right is making its display of unity on Thursday, the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) will unveil the team of ministers it will appoint should they emerge victorious at the ballot -- an unusual move in Italy and an attempt to show political transparency.

However its chances of this line-up working together are slim, as the M5S is polling at around 28 percent and is almost certain to not gain a majority on its own.

Should it gain more votes than both the centre-left coalition led by the former prime minister Matteo Renzi's Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi's rightwing group, it would have to strike a deal with other parties, something it has so far refused to do.

"We are in the midst of a bizarre festival of fantastical policy proposals and for the first the time ever we have a shadow government ready to step in before votes have even been cast," said current premier Paolo Gentiloni, who is a member of the PD.

In a campaign that has already seen clashes between leftwing activists and the far-right, tensions will be high again on Thursday, with a possible counter-demonstration being held at CasaPound's closing meeting in Rome.