Thu, Mar 16, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Berlusconi and Prodi deliver dull, US-style debate

STERILE A strictly orchestrated presidential debate in which answers were limited to two-and-a-half minutes delivered a spectacle that was lacking in entertainment value

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ROME

Many here hoped for the kind of public drama Italy loves, that something decisive might happen on this night Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his challenger Romano Prodi finally faced each other in their first televised debate of this tight race.

But an unwelcome bit of the US came to Italy on Tuesday night, in the form of a strictly orchestrated presidential debate. Answers were limited to two-and-a-half minutes. Interruptions were not allowed -- and, amazingly, no one did interrupt.

"It's clear this is not a system where you can make a speech in an efficient way," grumbled Berlusconi, who, behind in the polls, needed to make a bigger impression and seemed to strain harder at the rules.

Prodi, of course, disagreed, as he did throughout the 90-minute debate, less than a month away from the voting on April 9 and 10.

"This is a system that gives equality," he said. "It is a system that is used by the United States. It is a good system."

That the debate lacked excitement seemed especially odd given that this remains an open race, in which perhaps the least predictable leader in Europe, Berlusconi, 69, in office for five years, is fighting hard for his political survival and having a tough time of it recently.

He is several points behind in the polls, with economic growth at zero and his brash, personal style of politics far less popular now than when he took office. His center-right coalition continues to erode, prosecutors are again breathing down his neck, and he lost a skirmish with Prodi on how the debates and television air time would be divvied up.

On Sunday, when he stormed out of a television interview with a particularly persistent left-leaning reporter, his critics said he seemed to be cracking slightly under the pressure.

Compared with that performance, his debating skills on Tuesday seemed back to form. He was relaxed, communing with his usual skill with cameras, as he spilled forth figures on his accomplishments and tried to skewer his center-left opponent.

"The left holds an old ideology, with the same people that never change, that are recycled and that are inherited from an old ideology that views the state as an entity that the citizens must work for," he said in his closing remarks.

But Prodi, 66, a former prime minister and EU commissioner, seemed unusually animated and combative, as he worked to dispel his reputation as dull and too much the professor he once was. (Berlusconi seemed to taunt him slightly by constantly referring to him as "professor.")

"You have had five years of uninterrupted government, and you talk as if you are in the opposition," Prodi said to Berlusconi, who had just reeled off a litany of failures of past leftist governments. "What have you done?"

Berlusconi, despite having admitted that he knew he needed to offer something new to invigorate his campaign, stuck largely to old themes -- a fact that Renato Mannheimer, one of Italy's top pollsters, said gave the debate, only narrowly, to Prodi.

"He was boring," Mannheimer said of Prodi. "But if you compare him to other times, he was a little bit better than in the past, and Berlusconi was the same."

A poll released on Tuesday by Mannheimer showed that 64 percent of Italians had already decided whom to vote for, and both men are chasing after the 24 percent of undecideds, only about 14 percent of whom seemed likely to vote.

This story has been viewed 2124 times.
TOP top