M. Continuo

Berlusconi's election rival holds out for surprise

By Stephen Brown

ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi acts as if he hasalready won Italy's election but centre-left rival WalterVeltroni told voters on Friday that the flamboyant media tycoonwas "no statesman" and had a poor record on the economy.

Voters complain there is little to choose between theirplatforms as both candidates promise to lower taxes to boostdemand and fend off a looming recession in the euro zone'sthird biggest economy.

Berlusconi, the 71-year-old owner of AC Milan soccer club,is confident of winning a third term as prime minister inSunday and Monday's vote.

But Veltroni attacked Berlusconi's economic record and hisfondness for jokes, like making the two-fingered Latin gesturefor a cuckold behind the head of a Spanish minister in 2002.

"Italy is a serious country and doesn't need a premier whosticks up his fingers or tells dirty jokes at Europeansummits," said 52-year-old Veltroni on the last day ofcampaigning. "He's not a statesman. That's what all theinternational papers say."

Veltroni quoted the Organisation for Economic Cooperationand Development as saying that "in the five years from2001-2006 (when Berlusconi was in office) Italy was at astandstill".

The International Monetary Fund expects the economy to growat just 0.3 percent this year.

Ahead of a midnight deadline after which politicians arebanned from campaigning, both candidates appeared on a TV chatshow to deliver their final pleas for votes.

In one last sweetener, Berlusconi said he would abolish carand motorbike tax, but only if the Treasury could find thecash.

Veltroni stressed the theme of his campaign -- that he isthe candidate of change. "This country will have for the firsttime in its history a great reformist Democratic Party that I'msure will be the first party in Italy."

With few differences perceived between the frontrunners, upto 30 percent of voters were undecided in the last publishedpolls -- meaning Berlusconi's lead is by no means secure.

"The two main parties have put forward more or less exactlythe same programme," Claudio Arbotto, a 44-year-old mechanicfor Alitalia, the flagship airline struggling to find a buyer.

"We are close to recession here now and that means peopleare scared to spend and the economy grinds to a halt," said themechanic, who expects Berlusconi to win but intends to vote forthe centrist Christian Democrats, a distant fourth in polls.

Analysts at Italian bank Unicredit called both sides' taxproposals "disappointing" and said they should have paid moreattention to "increasing productivity gains...and trimming thehuge debt burden", the world's third highest in absolute terms.

Ratings agency Moody's said their platforms pointed in theright direction, but worried that if the result was uncertainItaly would waste more time on politics instead of reforms.

"WASTED" VOTES

Berlusconi, who has broken with the Christian Democrats inthe same way Veltroni jilted Prodi's old communist and Greenallies, urged people on the centre right not to "waste" voteson small parties as it would "play into the hands of the left".

Although he had a consistent 5-9 percentage point lead inthe latest opinion polls, Berlusconi urged supporters to ensurehim a big majority in the Senate, where Romano Prodi's two-seatlead caused his centre-left coalition to collapse in January.

"We need a majority in the lower house and the Senate," theconservative People of Freedom leader said. "I know the latestpolls and I am absolutely certain we will score a hugevictory."

Veltroni called Berlusconi's closing rally at Rome'sancient Arch of Constantine late on Thursday "a failure" forattracting only a few thousand people and said the electoratewas "way ahead of politics, newspapers and polls".

"You'll see that on April 13 we'll have some surprises,"said the Democratic Party candidate and former mayor of Rome.

Berlusconi used his final rally to criticise many leftistleaders and supporters including soccer star Francesco Totti,the AS Roma captain and Italian World Cup-winning striker.

Berlusconi said Totti was "not using his head" because hebacked the centre left's Francesco Rutelli for mayor of Rome.

"If I asked the Milan players to support me, many would,gladly. Many of them have asked me but I forbade it. That's thedifference between me, Veltroni and Rutelli," said Berlusconi.

(Additional reporting by Robin Pomeroy and Iain Rogers;Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)

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