Campaigning Heats Up Ahead of Italian Elections

Italy's general elections aren't until April, but campaigning has already gotten off to a nasty start. Prime minister and media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi, who current polls suggest will lose, has launched a media blitz, appearing nonstop on radio and TV. Opposition leaders are crying foul.

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Italy's general election doesn't take place until April, but the campaign has already turned nasty. Prime Minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has launched a media blitz, appearing almost non-stop on radio and television.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, that strategy has opposition leaders crying foul.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting: Last October, Academy Award Winning actor Roberto Benigni made a rare TV appearance seen by a record 15 million viewers.

(Soundbite of foreign television)

In a 45-minute satirical tour de force, Benigni mocked Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, threatening to jail anyone who said there was no freedom of expression in Italy. The next day Berlusconi's political party, Forza Italia, reacted furiously, calling that gag a premeditated lynching.

Berlusconi is now having his sweet revenge. In January, the prime minister appeared as a TV guest for a total of more than 10 hours, compared to about one hour for opposition leader Romano Prodi(ph). Berlusconi has popped everywhere: on his own three commercial networks, on the three state-run networks, and on dozens of radio stations, including a traffic information channel.

He explained his TV marathon as a truth campaign on his government record. He said he didn't have time before because he was busy, as he put it, carrying the cross of running the country. In one appearance, Berlusconi almost sounded operatic as he listed his government's achievements.

Mr. SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italian Prime Minister): (Trough translator) Tax reform, labor reform, pension reform, educational reform, (unintelligible), public works expression, a new immigration rule --

POGGIOLI: Opposition leaders shot back, saying Berlusconi forgot to mention the laws he pushed through Parliament to resolve his own legal problems, such as decriminalization of false accounting, restrictions on international judicial cooperation and shortening the Statute of Limitations for corruption and fraud. They also charged that while in government, Berlusconi's personal wealth soared from four to 12 billion dollars. Opposition leader Romana Prodi also responded to Berlusconi's charge that the leftist parties are corrupt.

Mr. ROMANO PRODI (Opposition Leader): (Through translator) He demonstrates a lifelong coherence to false promises, false denunciations. His strategies change, but he adjective false is what remains.

POGGIOLI: Berlusconi in turn denounced what he claimed is a wide spread Communist conspiracy of magistrates, financiers, and journalists.

Mr. BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) By definition, the prime minister cannot tell a lie.

POGGIOLI: Italian Chief of State Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who stands above the political fray, has repeatedly voiced concern over the drift of the campaign and called for immediate application of TV equal access regulations. Normally, they would go into effect only after Parliament is dissolved on February 11th. Those rules are meant to counterbalance an enormous media power concentrated in the hands of just one person, who also controls nearly the entire Italian advertising market.

The U.S.-based human rights group Freedom House has ranked Italy 77th, behind Botswana and East Timor in press freedom. But Berlusconi has repeatedly charged that the equal access rules repress freedom, and he seems determined to dominate the small screen as long as he can. Thanks to a face-lift, a hair transplant, and a year round tan, he looks younger and fitter then he did five years ago. His TV appearances follow a careful choreography. On one recent talk show, the host, with no sign of embarrassment, introduced the program as an interview with photographs and no questions.

Mr. BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) This is photograph when I took over as Foreign Minister and that is when Italy began to rise again after so many decades under political sidelines, following all this from France and Germany. Now Italy has a new credibility and plays a major role in solving all international crises. It is a protagonist on the world stage.

POGGIOLI: When Berlusconi first launched his media blitz, opinion polls but him 4 to 5 percentage points behind Prodi's center left coalition. David Lane, correspondent of the weekly The Economist and author of a book on Berlusconi, says many Italians are disappointed with his un-kept promises.

Mr. DAVID LANE (Reporter, The Economist): The Italian economy is poorly performing, the entire industry is uncompetitive, closed, suffers from red tape five years of Berlusconi's government has done virtually nothing to resolve the real economic problems of the country.

POGGIOLI: Berlusconi's center right coalition has suffered numerous defeats in local elections. It now controls only four out of 20 of the countries regions. The prime minister seems aware he has an uphill battle to regain his popularity. He even joked he'd take a vow of chastity until after the vote in the hopes that would help him get reelected.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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