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Berlusconi: The Prime Minister Italians Love or Hate


Italians go to the polls Sunday and Monday. They will decide whether to re-elect Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to another five-year term. Berlusconi's government has served the longest in post-war Italy but some who voted for him in the last election say he has not delivered on all his promises and will vote for his opponent, Romano Prodi.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, according to many observers of the Italian political scene, is a man you either love or hate. Without question he is a man of great charisma. Few knew much about him before he entered politics in 1994, launching his own party Forza Italia, or Go Italy.

Besides owning the country's largest private broadcast network, he also owns major shares in real estate, insurance and publishing companies and has accumulated a huge fortune.

Three months after launching Forza Italia, he was elected prime minister but his government collapsed within the year. In 2001 he made a triumphant return to power and he has managed to keep his center-right government in power for the full five-year term, a first in post-war Italy.

When he became prime minister in 2001 he promised an economic miracle. But, like in most of Europe, the economy has stagnated in recent years. Now he says he should be re-elected because Italy needs stability and continuity.

"We have maintained all of our promises," said Silvio Berlusconi. "So I think we are more credible."

The prime minister caused a storm this week when he used an obscenity to describe those voting for his opponent, center-left leader Romano Prodi. But that earthiness, or crudeness, as his critics call it, is also characteristic of the prime minister. Some observers say he appears not to think of the consequences of what he says.

And during his five years in power there have been a stream of gaffes. He compared a German lawmaker to a concentration camp guard, he said that the West was superior to Islam and just recently he said Chinese communists boiled babies and used them as fertilizer.

Berlusconi has also been dogged by legal problems during his political career. He has been accused of corruption, bribery, false accounting and tax evasion. The charges were all linked to his business interests. In fact, there are those who charge that he entered politics to save his media empire.

But up until now he has either been acquitted in the trials or the cases have been dropped under Italy's statute of limitations. Berlusconi accuses left-wing magistrates of a politically motivated hate campaign against him to remove him from power.

"We have often criticized magistrates," he said. "We have complained that magistrates are excessively politicized."

The prime minister has campaigned hard in this election. He has stressed that his government will continue to provide results if re-elected.

In a 10-point manifesto he promises a million new jobs, more liberalization, new infrastructures, including a bridge linking Sicily to mainland Italy. He also says more help will be provided to families and there will be greater efforts to combat crime and violence.

Berlusconi has also warned Italians not to vote against their own interests. To convince voters, he has told Italians that the center-left will increase taxes. For his part, he made a surprise announcement this week pledging to cancel a housing tax on first homes.

Berlusconi also says his opponent is a front man for a coalition led by Communists.

"Prodi, at the moment, is lending his smiling priest face to the left, which is 70 percent former Communists or Communists who will be in command and who will get rid of him [Prodi] when they will consider it convenient to do so," said Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi has trailed Prodi by at least three percentage points in the last opinion polls. But for some Italians his success as a businessman is still evidence of his capabilities and the reason why he should continue to run the country. The race is considered too close to call.