Berlusconi warns TV debate with Prodi will be a 'waxworks' show

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Following rules of engagement inspired by the US presidential election debate between George Bush and John Kerry, each man will have two and a half minutes to reply to a question, with right of reply limited to one minute. One candidate will get the first question, the other the last one, with the order reversed for the second encounter, on 3 April.

Everything down to suits and ties has been discussed in detail. Two different moderators will be in charge of the two shows, their order of appearance decided by tossing a coin. The debate is expected to follow the success of Mr Berlusoni's last two debating appearances and break viewing records. Italy's long campaign leading to the general election on 9 and 10 April has caught fire, at least on television.

The rules were agreed at the insistence of Mr Prodi's side after the challenger told Mr Berlusconi that he would rather have no debate than one in which the cards were stacked against him. Until last week Mr Berlusconi was insisting on his right, as the current premier, to conclude the discussion with a televised press conference given by himself alone.

Now he has conceded, albeit begrudgingly. "According to these rules, neither of us can reply to the other and the one who wants to lodge a disagreement must put up his hand like at school when you want to go to the lavatory ... We will be like little statues."

It certainly goes against the grain of Italian political debate, which is usually a contest to see who can shout louder and longer. But there is a growing feeling that the classic knockabout Italian style has hit a roadblock - especially after Mr Berlusconi's last television appearance ended with him stalking out in a huff.

The occasion was a 30-minute Hard Talk-style interview on Sunday night, but it ended after 20 minutes with a torrent of angry abuse from the Prime Minister and a walkout. The questions asked by Lucia Annunziata would have been scorned by Jeremy Paxman for their mildness, but they included issues that many of his fellow countrymen have been itching to ask him about. "You are world-famous," she said, "for being the Western leader who represents the greatest conflict of interest in the history of Western nations. Doesn't this bother you?"

Mr Berlusconi avoided a direct reply, but said "Rai 3" - the channel broadcasting the programme, which has a left-wing tinge - was "a war machine" against him. Long before time was up, the two were talking non-stop, and incomprehensibly, over each other. For once Mr Berlusconi's status as an "anti-politician" appears to have tripped him up.

Mr Berlusconi, who likes to surround himself with fawning courtiers, has little experience of the rough and tumble of debate. "When a real politician goes into the television studio, he must be prepared to be contradicted," said Piero Fassino, an opposition leader. "The Prime Minister is accustomed to making long monologues without anybody raising objections, and when this happens he gets nervous. In a democracy the opinions of others are to be respected."

Tonight's rigidly structured event will be a first for Italian television. Opposition politicians were wondering whether Mr Berlusconi might storm out of this one, too.