Berlusconi's 'testicle' insult overshadows poll debate

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The Independent Online

On Monday he called his opponent Romano Prodi "a useful idiot" in the service of his coalition's former Communists; yesterday the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went further, telling a shopkeepers' association that those who voted for the left were coglioni, literally "testicles" but usually intended to mean idiots or cretins.

"I have too much esteem for the intelligence of Italians to think that they would be such coglioni as to vote against their own interests," Mr Berlusconi said, smiling broadly. "Excuse my rough but efficient language."

As polling, due for Sunday and Monday, draws closer and tension between the two sides grows keener, the blows have been plumbing lower depths.

Last week Mr Prodi described his opponents in the election as "political criminals", provoking the Prime Minister to demand the intervention of the President, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Mr Ciampi had earlier requested the contending politicians to "moderate the tone" of their language.

During the televised debate, watched by 12 million people, Mr Berlusconi reiterated his hurt at the "criminal" tag. Mr Prodi replied by lamenting that during the campaign Mr Berlusconi had called him a poveraccio (a poor fellow), a rabbit and a cuckold. Mr Berlusconi denied calling him a rabbit and said he called him a poveraccio in a sympathetic sort of way, because of the manner in which he was being abused by the Communists in his coalition.

Then, a little later in the evening, Mr Prodi highlighted the Prime Minister's addiction to statistics by citing an old witticism: "He uses statistics like a drunk uses lamp-posts, more for support than illumination." Mr Berlusconi caught only the "drunk" part of the quote, and flew into high dudgeon. Moments later he called Prodi "a useful idiot".

But yesterday's coglioni scandal has dragged the debate from the gutter into the sewer. Reacting speedily to the latest insult, the centre-left coalition released a statement declaring that Mr Berlusconi had confirmed himself to be "an uncouth and vulgar man". The statement went on: "By using these ignoble and violent words, Berlusconi has thrown off the mask and revealed himself for what he is: a person who uses the media like a thug, and who lacks any respect for democracy, for institutions and for Italians."

The spat overshadowed the coup de theatre performed by Mr Berlusconi at the end of Monday night's debate, when after 90 minutes of ill-tempered and unedifying exchanges he put on a broad smile, turned to the camera and announced that if re-elected he would abolish council tax on first homes. It was a bolt from the blue, not even hinted at in any previous policy announcement by the centre-right grouping. It would pull the rug out from under council spending up and down the country. Mr Berlusconi gave no hint as to where compensating funds might be found, and as he had craftily timed his bombshell for the very last speech of the night, Mr Prodi had no opportunity to ask him.

No opinion polls may be published during the last two weeks of the election campaign, but the centre-left is believed to be still ahead with a lead of about 4 per cent. Mr Berlusconi's hope is that by reverting to the dream-seller role that served him so well in 2001, he can cajole enough of his disillusioned supporters to come out and vote. Antonio di Pietro, a former campaigning magistrate, now a centre-left coalition leader, commented: "He's trying desperately to pull a rabbit out of a hat."