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'Mr. Nice Guy' Shakes Up Italian Elections

With the collapse of Italy's center-left government coalition after 20 months in office, early elections will be held in April.

The vote will be under an election law that many consider a recipe for further political instability.

Early polls favor former prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. But the center-left is presenting a new face, Walter Veltroni, a "Mr. Nice Guy" who has already shaken up the political arena.


Berlusconi Takes the Lead

At election time in Italy, a late-night TV talk show is the most important campaign stop.

On Tuesday night, the guest of honor was former right-wing prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

At 71 years old, he's running for the fifth time, and he's selling himself as the man of the hour.

"I still feel like I'm 35 years old and, as my mommy used to say, if a person feels the duty to do something, he has to find the courage to do it," he said. "... Today, it appears that in order to put the political world in order, Silvio Berlusconi is still indispensable."


Berlusconi ran the government for five years — a record in Italy. But he wasn't re-elected — and was criticized by European Union officials for not curbing rampant tax evasion and for swelling Italy's public debt, making it the highest in Europe.

Berlusconi counters that his successor raised taxes too high and accuses judges of harassing him by constantly accusing him of corruption.

"We can guarantee Italians freedom of oppression from red tape, from taxes and from the judiciary," he said.

Polls show Berlusconi in the lead, taking advantage of popular disgust with the outgoing nine-party coalition.

But the climate has sharply changed from elections two years ago.

Growing Public Anger Over Corruption

A recent best-seller about the Italian political elite raised the curtain on a system of entrenched privileges for the best-paid politicians in Europe with lavish perks unheard of elsewhere.

Surveys show a growing public anger and disdain for politicians both on the left and right.

Restaurant owner Paolo Bistazzoni considers himself a hard-line right-winger.

"This system can't go on. We're warning them, if they don't change things, they too will go home after a year and a half. Italians can't stand this waste any longer," Bistazzoni says.

'Mr. Nice Guy' Takes a Page from Obama

While Berlusconi is flashy, with tinted hair and face-lifts, his new rival on the left is just the opposite. Clean-cut 52-year-old Veltroni is nicknamed "Mr. Nice Guy."

A former communist who openly adores American culture, Veltroni just stepped down as the popular two-term mayor of Rome. As leader of the new Democratic Party, he has modeled his campaign after Barack Obama's presidential campaign in the United States.

"Yes we can, yes we can," Veltroni says. "Barack Obama first said this when the road seemed closed, and now it's open wide," he adds.

The slogan has been translated as "si puo fare" and put to music.

In a major break with the past, Veltroni has vowed his party will run alone, not in coalition with little parties that analysts say are in great part responsible for Italy's unstable governments and legislative paralysis.

"Italy is standing still because this is a country of vetoes. Everyone has to veto something. Decisions are never taken. No one is accountable. With a veto, you have the certainty nothing will go forward, then you wield power by negotiating over lifting your veto," Veltroni says. "This has to stop. We need a democracy that makes decisions," he adds.

Polls show that Veltroni's risky solo strategy is paying off. He has narrowed the gap with Berlusconi.

Vatican Increases Political Visibility

But a new unexpected issue has entered the campaign — the growing visibility of the Vatican in the political debate.

Vatican influence is seen as having helped kill a civil union law proposed by the outgoing government. And Italian bishops have embraced calls for a moratorium on abortion — which has been legal in Italy for 30 years.

Carlo Pietrangelli is an insurance salesman who worries the Vatican's involvement could help Berlusconi.

"I worry about Vatican interference into Italian public affairs. Look at the TV nightly news, the first item is always what the pope did today. Political leaders call their bishop for political instructions. And this Catholic hierarchy is certainly not progressive," Pietrangelli says.

The election campaign has just started, and the two main rivals will have to compete hard to win over voters: Polls show that with two months to go, 30 percent of Italians are still undecided.

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