Berlusconi leads polls ahead of Italian elections
The bid by Walter Veltroni – Rome's centre-left mayor - to become Italy's next prime minister has sparked strong interest both at home and in wider Europe, but polls and analysts suggest that media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has a higher chance of winning and achieving a third-time comeback as leader of the EU's fourth largest country.
Italy, with a population of 58 million, is heading for early parliamentary elections on Sunday and Monday (13-14 April), following the fall of the centre-left government led by Romano Prodi in January - two years before his regular term was due to finish.
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Mr Prodi, a former European Commission president, lost a confidence vote mainly due to internal struggles in his nine-party ruling coalition and protests by small coalition parties against changes in election laws.
While Mr Prodi managed to cut the country's budgetary deficit from 4.4 percent of GDP in 2006 to 2.4 percent in 2007, Italy is still struggling with its enormous public debt which remains bigger than its gross domestic product.
The gloomy economic outlook of the country has been a key factor in the current campaign, with EU economy commissioner Joaquin Almunia stressing recently that a health-check of Italy's public finances "must be one of the objectives of all of the candidates taking part in the elections."
Mr Berlusconi (71) lost the 2006 elections overwhelmingly due to dissatisfaction among voters with his economic performance. Despite referring to himself as a champion of free markets and holding a comfortable majority in parliament, he failed to fully liberate Italy's rigid pension and social system.
But this weekend he features on electoral posters claiming he wants to take over from the government which has ruined the country and get "Italy back on its feet," promising to cut taxes and boost social benefits to families and to the poor.
In promoting his ideas, Mr Berlusconi has made liberal use of his huge media empire of Mediaset and his commercial control over several television channels, including Italy's public broadcaster RAI.
In polls published before the country's embargo two weeks ago, he was leading by 5 to 9 percent over his key opponent, Mr Veltroni (52), the leader of the centre-left forces.
Viewed as a relative youngster by Italian political standards, Mr Veltroni is trying to inspire young voters, as well as the around 30 percent of the electorate that remains undecided.
He has been campaigning under an Italian version of "Yes, we can" – the slogan of Barack Obama, a front-runner Democrat candidate for the US presidency elections. Mr Veltroni promises to boost Italy's economy and transparency over public affairs.