Incumbent prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, used the occasion on Monday night to surprise his centre-left rival, Romano Prodi, by announcing he would scrap housing tax if victorious in Sunday's general election.

The unexpected claim came at the very end of the often ill-tempered debate, leaving Prodi with no opportunity to respond.

The abolishment of the annual ICI housing tax imposed on first-time buyers represents the first fresh policy initiative from the 69-year-old media mogul since campaigning began in February.

"The prime minister clings to data the way a drunkard clings to lamp posts, not for illumination but to keep him standing up"

Romano Prodi

For his part Prodi focused much of his message on foreign policy, saying he would pull out Italian troops from Iraq "as soon as possible" if his coalition wins on Sunday.

Berlusconi supported the US-led invasion of Iraq with 3,000 troops, despite, massive public opposition.

 

The force currently numbers around 2,600 although Berlusconi has himself said he intends to withdraw all troops by the end of the year.

Even footing

Monday night's live debate was the second such event and, despite some heated exchanges, commentators said that the two candidates finished on a pretty even footing.

This is in sharp contrast to the first debate on 14 March when many judged that Berlusconi came out second best to Prodi after consistently overrunning his allotted time of two and half minutes per answer.

He again overran on Monday but reiterated his accusations that Prodi had no control over his coalition including two centre-left partiers and a number of smaller partners ranging from the Christian democrats to the communists.

The prime minister has also continually attacked Prodi's fiscal plans during the campaign, accusing his rival of planning a wave of tax hikes that would devastate Italy's middle classes.

As in the first debate, the personal enmity between the two men was openly exposed.

'Parish priest'

As Monday's exchanges became heated Prodi, a Italian former prime minister and president of the European Commission, said: "The prime minister clings to data the way a drunkard clings to lamp posts, not for illumination but to keep him standing up ..."

Italian voters are divided on
issues such as tax

Never one to be outdone in the sharp comment stakes Berlusconi retorted: "Prodi is like a useful idiot, he lends his cheery parish priest's face to the left which is 70 percent made up of former communists."


Italian law means opinion polls on the outcome of the debate were banned.

Berlusconi has managed to regain the political initiative thanks to his attacks on Prodi's tax plans.

Prodi, who defeated Berlusconi in the 1996 election, complained that if he won the April 9-10 election his government would inherit a financial mess.

"Public spending is out of control ... this is a real crisis," he said.


With that in mind, some analysts have said the prime minister's promise to abolish housing tax could backfire.

Berlusconi has trailed the centre left in the opinion polls for almost two years and the last surveys released before a polling ban came into force 10 days ago put Prodi's bloc between three-and-a-half and five percentage points ahead.