April 7, 2006

Last day of campaigning for Italy’s poll rivals

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italian politicians began a last day of
campaigning on Friday before the April 9-10 general election,
with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, lagging in the polls for
more than two years, battling to stave off defeat.

Berlusconi, who has appeared angry and defensive in recent
days as the campaign grew ever more acrimonious, started the
day with two radio interviews where he called on Italians to
vote en masse because a lower turnout could favor the

"My first appeal is: go to the polls. If, by chance, too
many people stay at home, there could be the possibility - I
don't think so, but there could be - of a victory by the left,"
he said, talking of possible defeat for the second day in a

He also renewed a blistering attack against the judiciary,
which he said was plotting with the center left to sink his
election chances.

"I am outraged by the fact that there are state employees,
that with the money of Italian citizens, plot against the prime
minister, the government and the image of Italy," he said in a
separate radio interview.

Berlusconi will end his campaign in the southern city of
Naples, where he will hold his first joint rally with his main
allies -- National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini and Pier
Ferdinando Casini, head of the Union of Christian Democrats.

Center-left challenger Romano Prodi will close his campaign
at a rally with the center-left's main leaders in Rome's Piazza
del Popolo, one of the city's best-known squares.

The center-left held a steady lead of 3.5-5.0 percentage
points when an opinion poll blackout began two weeks ago.

Saturday is a day of reflection and the polls will open at
8 a.m. (0600 GMT) on Sunday.


Commentators said Berlusconi's string of recent outbursts
-- including Thursday's assertion that United Nations observers
were needed to prevent the center left from rigging the vote --
had polarized voters.

"For better or for worse, Silvio Berlusconi has managed to
transform the elections into a referendum on himself," said an
editorial in top selling daily Corriere della Sera.

Opposition leaders, appearing increasingly confident of
victory, have accused the prime minister of losing his cool in
the face of probable defeat.

"With the pencil and the ballot sheet, the weapons of
democracy, we will win," Prodi told a rally on Thursday night.

The newsstands on Friday did nothing to improve
Berlusconi's mood, with most newspapers reprinting the cover of
the British magazine The Economist advising Italians to vote
him out of office under the headline "Basta" (That's Enough).

While Berlusconi's government has passed a string of
reforms over the past five years, it has failed to revive the
stagnant economy and many Italians say they feel worse off than
in 2001.

Whoever wins the election will face a tough task trying to
get the country's wayward public finances back on track.

Many analysts are skeptical things will get better soon.

"Italy's problems appear so deeply rooted that the next
government, whatever its complexion, is unlikely to do little
more than make a start at solving them," said London based
Barclays Capital in a research note.

(additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi)