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Italians Choose Between Berlusconi, Prodi

April 9, 2006

ROME (AP) _ Conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi faced a strong challenge Sunday from a center-left opponent in parliamentary elections marked by disenchantment with a stagnant economy and a nasty campaign.

Polls opened Sunday for the first of two days of voting that ends Monday.

Defeat for Berlusconi would end a five-year government that is Italy’s longest-serving since World War II, and deprive President Bush of a staunch ally who has sent troops to Iraq.

The media tycoon was elected in 2001 on high hopes that his knack for making money would translate into a business boom for Italy _ but economic growth has ground to a halt and even business leaders are turning their backs on him.

Polling is banned before elections, but the last one, 15 days ago, gave a slight edge to Romano Prodi, a center-left economics professor and former premier.

Income tax rates for many in the middle class are near 40 percent, but citizens see little return on their tax euros. In the national health system, to cite just one example, waits for a routine mammogram or heart test can last months. The country also has experienced a decline in competitiveness and has a high public debt.

The many uncommitted among the 47 million eligible voters could prove decisive in the tight race. Many voters seemed frustrated by their choices, who both lead fractious coalition of parties.

Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms coalition includes Christian Democrats, former neo-fascists and an anti-immigrant party. Prodi’s Union ranges from pro-Vatican moderates to Communists.

``Really, I don’t feel represented by anyone,″ said Linda Mille, a doctor who voted for the center-left on her way to work. ``But I don’t think there can be anyone worse than Berlusconi.″

Prodi, who defeated Berlusconi in 1996 for the premiership, is a former head of the European Union’s executive body. He has pledged to tone down Berlusconi’s strong relationship with Washington and strengthen the role of the 25-nation European Union.

The final days of campaigning saw a frenzy of mudslinging. Berlusconi shocked the nation in a speech to small business owners Tuesday, referring to those intending to vote for the opposition as ``coglioni″ _ a vulgarism that roughly translates as morons.

In their last televised debate Monday, Prodi likened Berlusconi to a drunk clinging to a lamppost for his constant spouting of figures to illustrate government accomplishments.

Berlusconi called Prodi communism’s ``useful idiot,″ alleging he was just a front-man for the two small Communist parties in his coalition.

``This year they really annoyed us,″ said Antonio Recine, 79, the first person to vote at a polling station on Rome’s ancient Aventine Hill.

Still, Recine said he voted for the right, suggesting complaints about the economy were exaggerated. ``All told, it doesn’t seem to me like we’re starving here,″ he said.

Berlusconi’s foreign policy has not been popular, especially his support of the Iraq war in defiance of domestic opposition. He sent some 3,000 troops to help rebuild Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Yet Italians largely lost interest in Iraq as an election issue when Berlusconi announced that troops _ now numbering around 2,600 _ would come home by year’s end.

Prodi had made virtually the same proposal, and in the final debate he promised withdrawal ``as soon as possible.″

Berlusconi’s critics accuse him of passing a raft of laws tailor-made to protect his business interests. The premier has also been kept busy fending off prosecution over alleged corruption and conflict of interest in his media empire, which includes Italy’s largest private television network, and his publishing, insurance and real estate interests.

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Associated Press Writer Ariel David contributed to this report

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