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Berlusconi Battles to Stay in Power

April 9, 2006

ROME (AP) _ Voters had a chance Sunday to punish Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his conservatives for a flagging economy in elections that saw the flamboyant media mogul and U.S. ally trying to fend off an opposition bloc that includes Communists.

Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man whose sprawling business empire includes Italy’s main private TV networks, a soccer club, publishing, and advertising, had been trailing slightly in opinion polls in the premier’s race behind Romano Prodi, an economics professor and former European Union chief who defeated him in 1996 elections.

Publication of surveys was not permitted in the last 15 days before the two-day vote, which began Sunday.

One potential issue _ Iraq _ was largely deflated before the campaign got going.

Berlusconi strongly supported President Bush despite opposition among Italians against the war, but months ago he said Italy’s troops in Iraq would all be home by year’s end.

Prodi earlier had made a similar promise about the once 3,000-strong contingent, which had been deployed for reconstruction after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, and said recently he would bring them home as soon as possible.

The ailing economy was at center stage, although neither candidate offered any bold ideas for its revival.

With the campaign almost over, Berlusconi promised he would do away with a property tax. Prodi tried to minimize damage by a Communist ally who said that the center-left would bring back an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi. Prodi hastened to say only the wealthiest would have to pay. He also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.

Berlusconi boasted that his government had spurred the creation of many jobs, but many of them were temporary contracts, like the kind 33-year-old Gabriele Moreschi has at a call center in Rome.

Moreschi said he voted for a liberal party in the center-left coalition because Prodi ``promised more job security.″

Critics, including Prodi, say Berlusconi should have concentrated more on the economy and less on himself.

They contend he dedicated his premiership to push through laws to protect his business interests and to help him in his years of legal problems. Berlusconi, who won the premiership in 1994 and 2001, contends the laws benefit all Italians and that he has been the innocent victim of left-leaning prosecutors.

Known for his sometimes outrageous comments, Berlusconi ranted against Communists, whom he claims use Prodi as a front-man in what he depicts as a campaign to hurt Italian democracy.

Surveys had shown that much of the electorate was unenthusiastic.

Linda Mille, a doctor, said she voted for the center-left to boot Berlusconi out of power: ``I don’t think there can be anyone worse than Berlusconi.″

In Rome, 79-year-old Antonio Recine said he voted for the right, brushing off economic concerns. ``All told, it doesn’t seem to me like we’re starving here,″ Recine said.

Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily, ran a front-page editorial cartoon depicting Italy as a woman with a clothespin on her nose while she pondered her ballot choice.

Berlusconi lobbied his 95-year-old mother, Rosa, at a Milan polling station to vote for his Forza Italia party, earning a reproach from electoral officials who told him campaigning was banned on the premises.

``I can’t do that even with my mother?″ he asked.

Prodi shook hands with voters at his polling station in Bologna, where he lives.

Hours before the polls opened, three gasoline bombs were hurled at a polling station in the northeastern town of Vittorio Veneto, and fliers found at the scene denounced both coalitions, police said. No one was hurt.

Italians were voting under a proportional system, thanks to a law pushed through by Berlusconi’s government to increase the chances that his tinier allies would win seats in Parliament.

By Sunday evening, 52.1 percent of Italy’s eligible 47 million voters had cast ballots, the Interior Ministry said.

___

Associated Press writer Ariel David contributed to this report.

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