Italian Courts Consider Putting Berlusconi on Trial

An Italian court is holding preliminary hearings to decide whether Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and British lawyer David Mills should stand trial on corruption charges. Milan prosecutors have accused Berlusconi of paying Mills $600,000 for giving false testimony during two trials where Berlusconi was accused of corruption.

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Ten days remain in what's become one of the most poisonous election campaigns in recent Italian history. Voters are being asked to choose between Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative prime minister and media tycoon, and a center left coalition led by former premiere Romano Prodi.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The last polls show Berlusconi trailing Prodi by three and a half to five points. In the last few weeks, the prime minister has cranked up the tone of his attacks not only on his political adversaries, but even against Italy's major businessmen who should be his natural allies. At a recent Industrialist Federation meeting, Berlusconi scolded members of Italy's business elite, saying they don't work hard enough and vehemently accused them of believing what he called the leftist media's claim that Italy is in economic decline. And cheered by his large entourage, he singled out one of his critics in particular.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through Translator) The idea of the business leader if he has not met support in the left makes me think he must have an awful lot of skeletons in his closet and a lot to repent if he hides behind the skirts of the left.

POGGIOLI: The scene was repeated for days on all TV channels, the three commercial networks Berlusconi owns and the three state-run channels he indirectly controls as head of government. Political scientist Ivo Diamante(ph) says scenes like this show Berlusconi as the anti-politician.

Mr. IVO DIAMANTE (Political Scientist) (Through Translator) To be successful, he has to always be in opposition, even when he is in the government, and in this he is a master. In order to win, he cannot tell the truth. If he were to tell voters what sacrifices are needed, he risks losing the election.

POGGIOLI: Yet Berlusconi is having trouble selling the image of a well-to-do, happy-go-lucky Italy. Last year, the country posted zero growth for the second time in three years. Exports have plummeted, and its budget deficit is one of Europe's highest. The Eurispes Research Institute says that one out of four Italian families, 15 million people, are either poor or at risk of slipping into poverty, and nearly 60 percent say they have problems getting to the end of the month.

But Berlusconi is focusing on other issues, raising the Communist specter if the Prodi coalition, which includes two small Communist parties, were to win. Last week after protest demonstrations by anti-globalists, he warned that Italy is facing a Democratic emergency, and this week he caused a diplomatic incident with China.

Prime Minister BERLUSCONI: (Through Translator) During Mao's rule, Chinese Communists did not eat children, but they boiled babies into fertilizer. It is horrendous but true.

POGGIOLI: Prodi, who is an economist and former head of the European Union Commission, tries to counter Berlusconi's flamboyance with the homey image of a wise uncle. He promises that if elected he will wage a war on tax evasion, which has soared under Berlusconi to an estimated $120 billion, and says he'll introduce a more equitable tax system.

Berlusconi and his supporters have pounced on this, warning Italians that center left vampires will suck the financial blood out of Italians' savings. Prodi calls this language political delinquency.

Mr. ROMANO PRODI (Politician): (Through Translator) It's time to stop this war of fear and terrorism. I've said a thousand times that we will not raise taxes. In the last campaign, Berlusconi sold dreams. Now he is selling fear. Voters should listen to our program not his lies.

POGGIOLI: Yesterday, Prodi was asked by a journalist to comment why Berlusconi, the successful media tycoon, has failed to use his magic on the Italian economy.

Mr. ROMANO PRODI (Politician): There is no correlation between a good man and a good politician. A good man acts for himself; a good politician for everybody.

POGGIOLI: In the campaign, Berlusconi has had the advantage of massive TV coverage. The Communications Authority said that the prime minister's media set channels gave him almost 10 times more air time than to Prodi. The authority also singled out the major news programs of the state-run networks for a similar bias. The question pundits are asking is whether this election will be won thanks to TV or to cost-of-living issues.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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