New date of Italian elections: April 9-10

Italy's government on Saturday formally called an election for April 9-10, Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office said. The decision during a Cabinet meeting was made minutes after the Italian president signed a decree that dissolved parliament, ending a five-year legislature and formally opening the campaign ahead of the vote.

The election date had been agreed upon in previous weeks between Berlusconi and the president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Opposition leaders had also signed off on the date. Parliament ended two weeks later than originally planned, after Berlusconi negotiated a delay that allowed his government to rush through a flurry of last-minute legislation.

The postponement also allowed the premier to continue a barrage of TV and radio appearances, which will be limited as rules aimed at giving competing coalitions equal air time take effect. "I'll be able to rest a bit," Berlusconi said, speaking on a talk show late Friday.

Despite the media blitz, opinion polls have consistently indicated that the center-left bloc headed by Romano Prodi, a former premier and former European Commission president, is leading ahead of the vote.

Recent polls put the center-left in front by some five percentage points, though the gap has been shrinking. Berlusconi is confident that his media campaign will bear fruit, and has said that his own pollsters indicate the two blocs are virtually tied.

"I have absolutely no doubt over the fact that I will govern for another five years," he said Friday on the sidelines of a conference in Rome. Some of Berlusoni's allies have been more cautiously optimistic, at times even expressing mild criticism over the premier's all-out offensive.

Among the measures approved in the final parliamentary sessions were funding for the Winter Olympics, which opened Friday in Turin, and for Italy's dwindling contingent in Iraq, where some 2,600 Italian troops are currently posted.

Also passed was a reform that stiffens Italy's drug laws, eliminating the distinction between hard and soft drugs. The measure tops a long list of recent legislation bitterly contested by the opposition, which presented its electoral program Saturday.

Center-left parties, which range from centrist moderates to communists and secular radicals, have already been squabbling over elements of the platform, with centrists moderating proposals for a quick pullout from Iraq and for granting legal rights to same-sex couples.

The center-left has said that if it wins the elections it will seek to reverse many of Berlusconi's reforms, including an electoral reform reintroducing a system of full proportional representation that critics say risks returning Italy to the revolving-door governments of postwar decades, reports the AP.


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