ROME: Italy’s politicians Tuesday stepped up their campaigns in the last few days before next weekend’s elections with the outcome deeply uncertain and up to a third of voters still up for grabs.
Opinion polls on party standings are banned in the last two weeks before the Feb. 24-25 poll but one of Italy’s leading pollsters, Renato Mannheimer, said 27.7 percent of Italians were still undecided or could abstain.
This makes the final few days of campaigning crucial for an election which has the potential to again destabilize the eurozone. Italy came close to a major debt crisis in November 2011 before Silvio Berlusconi stood down and was replaced by Mario Monti.
Mannheimer said in the Corriere della Sera daily that about 5 million people, or 10 percent of voters, would decide in the last few days.
Political leaders were all out on the hustings in a final drive for votes with Berlusconi basking in the adulation of the party faithful in a rally in Milan Monday night and both anti-establishment leader Beppe Grillo and outgoing Premier Monti campaigning Tuesday night.
A succession of corruption scandals over recent weeks has boosted Grillo, a Genoese comedian famous for obscenity-laced rants against a widely detested political class.
His rise has increased uncertainty over the result although experts say Berlusconi may be the biggest loser from the surge by Grillo’s 5-Star Movement.
Latest estimates say he could get as much as 20 percent of the vote, way ahead Monti who has failed to gain traction at the head of an uninspiring centrist coalition which is stuck below 15 percent.
Although pollsters believe the center-left has maintained a lead of around 4-5 points over Berlusconi’s center-right since the last polls on Feb. 8, they are widely predicting an inconclusive result in the Senate.
The most likely outcome is that center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani will be forced into the arms of Monti in order to win control of the Senate, which has equal lawmaking powers with the lower house.
Stefano Fassina, a top official of the Democratic Party, which dominates the center-left coalition, said Tuesday their biggest fear was that Monti would fall short of the votes needed to ensure Senate control because of Grillo’s rise and resurgence in the last month by Berlusconi.
But he added: “Our feeling is that with Monti we will have a majority in the Senate large enough to have a stable government, this is what we understand from the latest polls.”
Fassina dismissed fears that Monti would refuse to join an alliance with the center-left which includes the leftist Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) party led by the openly gay governor of the southern Puglia region, Nichi Vendola.
Although Monti, struggling to build votes as a separate centrist offering, reiterated Tuesday that he had nothing in common with the center-left, Fassina said in the end he would have to join a coalition in the interests of stability after the elections.
Berlusconi was greeted by chants and cheers when he attended a rally at Milan’s exhibition center Monday night, assuring the party faithful that his center-right could still win the election.
He regaled an enchanted crowd of 1,500 die-hard supporters for at least 90 minutes with attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Monti.
Despite a lurid scandal in which he is facing charges of having sex with an underage prostitute during “bunga bunga” parties at his Milan villa, many of the supporters were women.
However, Angela Bruno, 30-year-old employee of a renewable energy company, this week demanded an apology from Berlusconi after he crudely joked about sex with her on stage at a business event and openly examined her bottom.
Bruno said her 13-year-old daughter had cried for days after seeing a video of the incident.
Bruno, an employee of renewable energy firm Gruppo Green Power, said she was presenting a contract to Berlusconi at a recent ceremony when the former prime minister asked her suggestive questions in front of senior colleagues, staff and members of the public.
“Do you come? ... only once? ... how many times do you come? ... with what sort of time intervals?,” he asked her with a smirk on his face. At the time she went along with the banter giggling nervously as the audience roared with laughter.
Bruno told Italian television La7 Channel Monday evening that she had tried to keep the conversation on a professional level but had been too intimidated to reprimand Berlusconi in public due to his position of power and the presence of senior staff.
In the interview, the married mother-of-one said she had been offended and embarrassed and demanded the apology.
Berlusconi did apologize in an interview on Radio 105 Tuesday, but also said that Bruno had seemed to enjoy herself at the time.
He urged her to stop reading left-wing newspapers, which he said had exaggerated the seriousness of the exchange.