New-kid-on-the-block Veltroni challenges Berlusconi

Rome - Italy seems to need a serious image overhaul ahead of its polls. Pictures of rotting rubbish piles in Naples and football hooligans rampaging in Rome have appeared on TV screens around the world as have reports of tainted Italian mozzarella and wine.

Silvio Berlusconi and Walter Veltroni, the main contenders in the April 13-14 elections, have both pledged to redeem the country's reputation.

However, they have shied away from suggesting solutions to Italy's deeper problems - public debt, people's diminishing buying power and the economy's decade-long near-zero growth rate and faltering competitiveness.

Certainly, they have mentioned measures such as curbs on public spending, slashing red-tape, reducing taxes and improving services and infrastructure.

And they both agree on reforming a pension system which is catering for one of the world's most ageing populations and burns up 15 per cent of the country's GDP.

But there has been little talk of institutional and electoral law reforms which most analysts consider essential to equip Italy with effective government and maintain the country's place among the world's G8 group of most industrialized nations.

Of the 33 candidates, only three-times former premier Berlusconi of the conservative People of Freedom party or former Rome mayor Veltroni of the centre-left Democratic Party have a realistic chance of becoming prime minister of what would be Italy's 62nd post-World War II government.

Berlusconi, who is running in his fifth campaign, was handed another comeback opportunity when the centre-left government of Romano Prodi - winner over Berlusconi in the 2006 elections - crumbled in February. Defections had seen Prodi's wafer-thin majority in the parliament's upper house Senate vanish.

Prodi's coalition of 10 parties ranging from moderate Catholics and diehard Communists bickered over almost every issue, including Italy's military mission in Afghanistan and the issue of granting legal recognition to unmarried couples.

Prodi's unpopular decision to raise taxes along with his government's less than dignified demise pushed the political pendulum back towards the right, giving Berlusconi a seemingly comfortable 10 per-cent lead in opinion polls when the election campaign kicked off.

But Veltroni has since been making up some ground.

Given Italy's convoluted electoral law, a majority of votes won at the ballot box also does not necessarily translate into a working majority in parliament - especially in the Senate which can reject legislation or vote down governments approved in the much larger, lower house Chamber of Deputies.

Blaming the far-left wing parties for the outgoing government's failure, Veltroni decided his Democratic Party should part ways with them to run solo in the election - a bold move because Italy's proportional representation voting system favours coalitions.

Further distancing himself from the far-left and his own Communist past, Veltroni has also attempted to woo Italy's capitalists by including several industrialists among his list of candidates.

The 52-year-old-Veltroni and admirer of US presidential candidate Barack Obama has also stressed the need for Italy to break with the "tired old ways" of doing politics as embodied, he says, by 71-year- old Berlusconi.

Berlusconi in turn accuses his rival of stealing his party's business-friendly manifesto and says Veltroni is a late convert to tough law-and-order measures and tighter immigration controls - long time corner-stones of the centre-right.

Berlusconi has also questioned Veltroni's novelty value by pointing out that many of the Democratic Party's leading candidates sat in Prodi's cabinet which "brought Italy to its knees" whilst ignoring the fact that Italy's growth rate dipped below zero during his five years in power.

Still, for all the tit-for-tat exchanges between the pair many observers have noted an absence of the rancour that has characterized recent Italian election campaigns.

Veltroni, observers say, has failed to hit Berlusconi where in the past he has shown to hurt most - with proposals to introduce new laws on conflicts of interest that would force the media-tycoon to choose between his political career and his ownership of Italy's largest private television network.

Similarly, Berlusconi has toned down his traditional anti- Communist rhetoric used in the past to demonize his opponents in the centre-left and those in the judiciary who have probed his business dealings.

But it is not only neutral observers that have picked up on the apparent lack of ardent animosity between Berlusconi and Veltroni.

The other parties contesting the election from the far-left to the hard-right have warned of a "tacit agreement" between the two main rivals to share power under a "grand coalition" similar to that between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany.

Such an executive could work to usher in electoral reforms aimed at reducing the influence of smaller parties to give Italy more stable governments, some analysts say.

Unsurprisingly, the smaller parities - who are likely to tip the balance of power if no clear winner emerges from the elections - say a deal to place the country under a "Veltrusconi" government would amount to a betrayal of voters.

But Berlusconi and Veltroni say no such plan exists.

"Whoever wins, governs," has been their identical reply. (dpa)