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Prodi Makes Headway in Italian Election

For the past five years, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has headed the center-right coalition government. It has been the longest serving government in post-war Italy. On Sunday, Italians will vote in a general election. Sabina Castelfranco takes a look at Romano Prodi, the man who is challenging the prime minister to lead Italy's next government.

Romano Prodi is not new to politics or to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He is the only person to have beaten the prime minister in an election. It happened in 1996 and it could happen again. For months Prodi has been ahead of the prime minister by at least 3 percentage points in opinion polls.

Romano Prodi is a former economics professor who had been president of the European Commission. His style has little in common with the current prime minister. Prodi lacks the charisma of his opponent. He is quieter, some say dull.

Still, he does have one thing that endears him to Italian voters: Mr. Berlusconi's support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular in Italy. Under a Prodi premiership Italy would be likely to place less emphasis on close relations with the United States, and would instead renew ties with its traditional partners, in particular France and Germany.

Italians will cast their ballots on Sunday and Monday to choose whether Mr. Berlusconi or Prodi will lead the next Italian government.

In addition to his pro-European foreign policy stance, Prodi is respected for his expertise on the economy and industrial policy.

"Let's look at Italy today," he said, "and what Berlusconi did with public spending. We had five percent surplus, we threw it all away, that's 40 billion euro. Public spending has risen out of control, 2-3 percent of GDP."

Prodi's economic program for a center-left government includes boosting employment by cutting labor costs, increasing competition and reducing the budget deficit. Prodi has also vowed to fight tax evasion and halt the rise in non-permanent job contracts.

In its over 200-page election manifesto titled "For the Good of Italy", the center-left also said it had plans to speed up Italy's slow trials system, grant legal recognition to civil union, including those between couples of the same sex, and change a tough law on immigrants.

But Prodi has come under heavy fire for failing to clearly explain his tax plans. His intention to restore an inheritance tax, abolished by Berlusconi, has raised alarm. He has not specified at what level the tax would be set, saying it will only affect rich people.

"We will apply the inheritance tax only on those who have incomes of several million euro," Prodi said.

It was not easy for Prodi to put together his manifesto. His center-left "Union" alliance stretches from Roman Catholic centrists to liberals, to hard core Communists. He is also in the curious position of having no party of his own.

Mr. Berlusconi has repeatedly cast doubt on Prodi's ability to keep his coalition together, saying he will only have five of his own deputies to count on and 150 from the various parties making up his alliance.

Mr. Berlusconi said it was very difficult for him to keep together his majority with a political force, the first in Italy, of 264 deputies. He said he could not imagine how Prodi would be able to do it with just a handful of his own deputies.

On the issue of foreign policy, the center-left challenger also has different views from the prime minister. Prodi has pledged to pull troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, if he is elected.