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Rome - Engaged in a uphill struggle to close the gap on front-running centre-left rivals ahead of next month's elections, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has sacrificed a powerful but scandal-prone ally to court a disaffected electorate.
The February 24-25 vote comes against the backdrop of a deep recession, soaring unemployment and a string of corruption and mafia-collusion scandals, which have fueled anger against the so-called “caste” of professional politicians.
Sensing the public mood, Berlusconi excluded from the list of candidates that his People of Freedom (PDL) party submitted late on Monday Nicola Cosentino, a man accused of being in cahoots with the Camorra, the Neapolitan branch of the Italian mafia.
“It was a very painful decision,” Berlusconi told one of his TV channels on Tuesday.
Cosentino, known as “Nick o'mericano” (Nick the American), was said to be worth 30,000 votes in Campania, one of the swing regions that the PDL is targeting in the hope of at least denying rivals the chance of an overall majority in the Senate.
Earlier this year, parliament rejected a judicial request for his arrest. But Cosentino - who was first elected for Berlusconi's party in 1996 and was one of his junior ministers in 2008-2010 - risks going to jail as soon as his parliamentary immunity expires.
Libero, a pro-Berlusconi paper, celebrated the decision to exclude Cosentino by publishing a cartoon depicting Berlusconi as the “Mr Clean” of advertising fame.
But Corriere della Sera, Italy's biggest daily, noted how “difficult” it must have been, given that the former premier “is a defendant in three trials and lives in a state of permanent war with magistrates.”
“In a civilized country you should go to jail only after being sentenced,” Cosentino protested Tuesday. “If I had to, I would go there with my dignity ... I prefer my dignity to my immunity,” he added, insisting he was innocent.
Berlusconi said that Cosentino was a victim of “politicized magistrates,” but was still excluded from the PDL lists because the party would have turned off voters if his name stayed on ballot papers.
Last week the centre-left La Repubblica newspaper said a confidential poll commissioned by the media mogul and politician had revealed that the PDL would have shed “a million votes” if it had questionable candidates in its lists.
Other outgoing PDL parliamentarians in legal trouble - such as former minister Claudio Scajola and Marcello Dell'Utri, who prosecutors say should be jailed for seven years for mafia collusion - were also sacrificed.
The centre-left Democratic Party took similar action last week against four-scandal-tainted outgoing parliamentarians, one of whom, Mirello Crisafulli, was filmed kissing a mafia boss but was later acquitted of mafia collusion.
“It was a bit of a make-up operation,” Michele Ainis, a law professor at Roma Tre university and columnist for Corriere della Sera and L'Espresso weekly, told dpa. “Some people who were unfit for parliament have been excluded, others remained,” he noted.
Il Fatto Quotidiano, an opposition newspaper, pointed to the PDL's Raffaele Fitto, a former minister for whom prosecutors want a six-and-a-half-year jail term for corruption, and Roberto Formigoni, the scandal-plagued outgoing president of Lombardy.
“Looking at all parties' lists, I'd say that people have been chosen because of their loyalties, rather than their competences,” Ainis said, extending his assessment to the centrist coalition led by outgoing premier Mario Monti.
Monti's list, Civic Choice, is supposed to be free of politicians or scandal-tainted candidates. But among stars like fencing gold medalist Valentina Vezzali and a string of businessmen and journalists, it includes some defectors from the PDL and the PD.
The outgoing premier has also sided with two old-hand politicians and former Berlusconi allies like Pier Ferdinando Casini, a Christian Democrat, and Gianfranco Fini, a conservative who used to be a neo-fascist.
Pollsters are predicting a record-low voter turnout in the elections, as well as 13 to 15-per-cent support for the Five Star Movement, a protest party led by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Berlusconi's side is currently on 26-30 per cent, nine points behind the centre-left, but is catching up. Monti's camp has been stable on around 15 per cent, and is tipped as a coalition partner for the centre-left if it fails to secure an outright win.
“Frankly, I am not very optimistic: I don't expect that the next parliamentary term will introduce many reforms or will last very long,” Ainis said. “There will be a government, but it will be precarious.” - Sapa-dpa