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To Win Votes, Berlusconi Promises to Scrap Housing Tax

The final television duel between the two contenders in the Italian general election ended in what many said was a draw. But Prime Minister Berlusconi fought for his political life to the very end, making a surprise announcement that, if re-elected, he would scrap the annual housing tax.

This time it was different from the first debate in mid-March between the two contenders in the Italian general election. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and center-left opposition leader Romano Prodi both knew they could not fail the test.

Although Prodi was considered the winner of the last debate, this time Mr. Berlusoni had kept his trump card right until the end. In his final appeal to voters, when his opponent could no longer respond, he made an extraordinary promise.

"For us, the home is sacred, the first home is sacred, like the family is sacred," he said. "For this reason we will abolish the housing tax."

The rules of the debate did not give Prodi a chance to immediately challenge Berlusconi and ask him how he thought he would fund local authorities in the future. The promise could make the difference for Berlusconi, whose center-right coalition has been lagging up to five percentage points in opinion polls. Some political commentators said the pledge was not credible and would backfire.

During the debate, Mr. Berlusconi defended his government's record and accused Prodi of not being in control of his coalition. He insisted the center-left planned to - in his words - "re-distribute wealth, taking away from the middle classes to give to what they call the working classes."

Prodi insisted that an inheritance tax his center-left planned to re-introduce would only adversly affect the rich, or as he put it, those "who have several million euro." The economic professor painted a bleak picture of Italy's present public finances, blaming it on the current government. Prodi pledged to fight tax evaders.

Tension was high during the confrontation, with Prodi comparing Mr. Berlusconi to a "drunkard clinging to a lamppost" and the prime minister denouncing his opponent as a "useful idiot."

Mr. Berlusconi also appealed to women voters, saying he would have eight women ministers in his next government. He pledged to select Italy's first woman deputy prime minister.

Only one issue of foreign policy came up during the debate: Italian troops in Iraq. Prodi says, if his coalition wins, Italian troops will be pulled out as soon as possible. Mr. Berlusconi repeated that troops would be pulled out, as already planned, by the end of the year.