Italian Candidates Fail to Ignite Voter Enthusiasm

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Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and former prime minister, holds an election rally in Palermo. i

Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and conservative former prime minister, holds an election rally in Palermo, Italy, on Sunday. He is leading in the polls ahead of elections next week. Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images
Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and former prime minister, holds an election rally in Palermo.

Silvio Berlusconi, media tycoon and conservative former prime minister, holds an election rally in Palermo, Italy, on Sunday. He is leading in the polls ahead of elections next week.

Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty Images
Center-left Democratic Party leader and former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, jokes with supporters i

Center-left Democratic Party leader and former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, jokes with supporters after a campaign rally on Tuesday in Calabria, in southern Italy. Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images
Center-left Democratic Party leader and former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, jokes with supporters

Center-left Democratic Party leader and former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, jokes with supporters after a campaign rally on Tuesday in Calabria, in southern Italy.

Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty Images

Italians are days away from heading to the polls to elect a new government, but many voters say the lackluster campaign and the aging political establishment on both the left and the right leave them cold.

Polls show Silvio Berlusconi, the right-wing former prime minister, ahead of his main rival, the center-left's new leader, Walter Veltroni, but a third of the electorate is still undecided.

With many voters potentially making their choices at the last minute before balloting Sunday and Monday, analysts predict a tight race. A tie might force the two rivals to join forces in a grand coalition to pass urgently needed political and economic reforms.

Italian Electorate Dispirited

People from across the country gathered recently in Rome's Piazza Navona to listen to Beppe Grillo, a comedian who has become the most powerful voice of protest in Italy. His blog is ranked among the 10 most-visited in the world, according to blog search engine Technorati.

"Look at all those politicians on their talk shows, on their TV networks, Berlusconi the psycho-dwarf and Veltroni, Mickey Mouse. They are corpses, they are dead," Grillo told the rally.

"What should we vote for? This electoral law is unconstitutional because it forces me to vote for a party without being able to pick a favorite candidate. For the first time, I am proud not to vote," he said.

Economic Good News, Trust in Politicians Scarce

Voter turnout in Italy has historically been high.

But this time, many Italians are following Grillo's lead. The country is struggling under a mountain of debt and undergoing a serious economic crisis. Growth is close to zero. And one family in seven is unable to stretch their income to last an entire month.

Italian workers are the lowest paid in Europe, yet the country's politicians have the continent's highest salaries.

Polls show that only a small percentage of Italians trust their politicians.

"Talking about Italy, one has to be prepared to talk about anomalies, irregularities," says Franco Ferrarotti, one of Italy's best-known sociologists.

He says the biggest anomaly is that Berlusconi, a media tycoon, is again a candidate.

"This is the only developed, technically advanced country in the West in which the [wealthiest] man is also running for prime minister," Ferrarotti says.

Italians 'Mesmerized, Hypnotized' by Berlusconi's Wealth

The pugnacious Berlusconi wears a pacemaker and his permanently tanned face is pinched by facelifts.

Nonetheless, the 71-year-old is still capable of selling dreams.

"We are mesmerized, hypnotized by the clout of big wealth," Ferrarotti says.

At rallies, Berlusconi cracks jokes and leaps about the stage, wielding the microphone like the cruise ship crooner he used to be.

He charms his middle-aged female supporters — even when he calls them the "menopause section."

The tycoon has faced about a dozen corruption trials — which he says were cooked up by communist-leaning prosecutors — but most of the charges against him were dropped either due to expired statute of limitations or laws passed by his government.

Hoping for a comeback, Berlusconi is making big campaign promises, including lower taxes and more spending on infrastructure. He also has pledged to prevent the terminally unprofitable airline Alitalia from being sold to what he calls a "colonizing foreign buyer," in reference to negotiations to sell the carrier to Air France-KLM.

But voter Emma Loreto does not believe Berlusconi will deliver. She says that during Berlusconi's five years in office, from 2001 to 2006, he did many things "for himself" but not for the Italian people.

"So now we pay more tax than before because he spent a lot of money in his government. He told us we are rich, we can spend a lot of money, but it's not true," Loreto says.

Center-Left's Veltroni Takes Aim at the Mafias, Red Tape

Loreto says she is voting for the center-left candidate Veltroni.

The popular former mayor of Rome broke with bickering radical leftist parties that paralyzed the previous government and has taken the helm of the new Democratic Party.

Veltroni crisscrossed the country by bus during his campaign.

In the south, he promised to crack down against the many mafias that hold the local economies in their grip. In the industrialized and productive north, he promised to abolish red tape and overregulation that stifles Italian businesses.

On the campaign trail, he has noted that Italy is burdened with 21,000 laws, or four times as many as Germany. He says he aims to reduce that number drastically, down to 2,000 in three years.

"We need a slimmer, more efficient state, more incentives for venture capitalists," Veltroni says. "I want Italians to recover their desire to take chances."

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