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Italy's Political Rivals Face Off in Final Televised Debate


Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his center-left opponent Romano Prodi face off in a final television debate on Monday night. The debate is seen as their final chance to convince many undecided voters ahead of general elections on Sunday.

Monday night's debate is particularly important for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been trailing between 3.5 and 5 percentage points in the opinion polls. The 69-year-old leader of the center-right coalition is fighting for his political life.

The U.S.-style debate is the second and last one between the two rivals. The first one was held in mid-March and center-left leader Romano Prod is widely believed to have come out the winner.

The debate this time could be decisive. It will be moderated by a veteran RAI journalist and is being conducted with strict rules that include a fixed amount of time for each answer and a ban on filming each candidate's reaction when the other one is speaking.

Both leaders have been preparing hard with their closest aides for the evening debate. Berlusconi rehearsed for the showdown at his luxury villa in Sardinia while Prodi secluded himself at his home in Rome.

Berlusconi has been under constant attack by the center-left over Italy's stagnant economy and public accounts. But in the last week Berlusconi seemed to gain a little ground as he accused the center-left of planning an increase in taxes.

Both sides have rejected accusations from the other camp.

Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said the numbers are unequivocal and show that the center-right has respected commitments with the European Union. The deficit-to-GDP ratio stands at 3.8%.

Fini said that if Italy's accounts are under control after 5 years, during which the economy has been stagnant in all of Europe, he really could not understand the complaints of the opposition.

Members of the center-left opposition, for their part, defended their program saying taxes will only be raised for those who are very wealthy and not for the middle class.

Some 50 million voters will be asked to choose between the charismatic media mogul Berlusconi and the quieter and more serious economics professor Prodi on Sunday and Monday.