Italian contenders reduce TV debate to shouting match

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THE LEADERS of Italy's right and left, Silvio Berlusconi and Achille Occhetto, last night turned their only television debate into a slanging match, each accusing the other of foul play in the election campaign.

Mr Berlusconi, the multimillionaire media tycoon, said he was the object of 'intimidation and intolerance' and accused his opponent of 'Stalinist and Leninist methods'. Mr Occhetto, leader of the PDS (former Communists), lambasted the other's 'victimism' and complained of unheard-of slander. Both presented themselves as models of fairness and accused each other of dastardly falsehoods.

All the venom that has built up in the last days of the campaign burst out as the two gave vent to their bitterness. It was supposed to be an ordered affair, with an agreed number of questions, most to be answered in turn, with a set time for reply. The programme was recorded a few hours earlier and broadcast on Mr Berlusconi's Channel Five - his lucky number.

Because of two extraordinary events earlier - the police visit to the headquarters of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the resignation of the PDS chairman of the parliamentary anti-Mafia commission over allegations of links between the Mafia and associates of Mr Berlusconi - the moderator, Enrico Mentana, allowed each to have his say on the matter.

Both men were clearly nervous, and pitched in with barely controlled fury. Before long, contrary to all the rules, they were shouting at the same time, with the unfortunate Mr Mentana unable to stop them. It was with immense relief that he announced the first commercial break. 'I have never longed for them so heartily,' he said.

Mr Berlusconi said that if the left won, Italy would become 'an illiberal republic without democracy and without freedom'.

Mr Occhetto avoided making the same accusations against Mr Berlusconi but protested it was 'extremely serious' that he should claim the left was Stalinist and would never give up power once it got it. 'Nobody believes that any more,' he declared.

After they got it off their chests, they were able to discuss their election programmes calmly, and even joke together. In the end it looked like a draw. Neither had devastated the other, been more persuasive or shone more brightly. Mr Berlusconi, the media man, was better at smiling but less experienced in vigorous political argument. Mr Occhetto looked pale - or overplastered with powder - and more serious, but also tough. And his years of political experience showed.

Police raid Berlusconi HQ, page 14

Clash of cultures, page 20

(Photograph omitted)