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European Elections Test Pro-War Berlusconi - 2004-06-12


Italians, Latvians and Maltese join voters from the Czech Republic Saturday in casting ballots for the European Parliament on the third day of a four-day Europe-wide election. The voting is more of a referendum on national leaders than a barometer of pan-European sentiment. And that is especially true in Italy.

Foreign policy is rarely an election issue in Italian politics, but this time, the Iraq war has taken center stage. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been harshly criticized for supporting the U.S.-led coalition and sending 3,000 peacekeeping troops to Iraq. Public opinion polls have shown that most Italians consistently opposed the war and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

But the recent release of three Italians held hostage in Iraq for nearly two months and the adoption of a United Nations resolution endorsing the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi government may have caused a shift in the political mood just ahead of the vote, which takes place in Italy on Saturday and Sunday.

Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist at Rome's John Cabot University, says Mr. Berlusconi just might receive a boost from voters.

"Well, he has really scored an impressive series of successes in foreign policy in the past few days, which, you know, have been counterbalanced by rather embarrassing steps by the opposition, who found themselves supporting policies, which were really in a dead alley," said Franco Pavoncello.

Mr. Pavoncello is referring to an attempt by the center-left opposition to force a vote in the Italian parliament demanding the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq. One center-left leader, former Prime Minister Lamberto Dini, acknowledges that move was a mistake.

"In the end, yes, and that was, I think, premature," he said. "I believe we should have waited."

But Mr. Dini denies Mr. Berlusconi's assertion that he played a role in drafting the U.N. resolution endorsing an interim Iraqi government and reconciling differences in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Mr. Berlusconi was also quick to take credit for the hostage release, saying he personally authorized the raid by coalition forces, which freed the captives. The opposition denies that claim, too, saying their release was the result of pressure by Iraqi religious leaders, at the request of opposition leader Romano Prodi, who is also the outgoing head of the European Commission, the European Union's executive body.

The prime minister says his center-right Forza Italia party will gain 25 percent of the vote in the two-day contest, which combines voting for the European Parliament and local and provincial councils.

But he angered some voters on Friday by sending out last minute text messages to 50 million mobile phone users urging them to vote. Many voters complained about an invasion of privacy. Others said the loud beep of Mr. Berlusconi's message woke them up in the middle of the night.

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