Less than a week before Italy's general election, the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the opposition leader, Romano Prodi, square up tonight for a second and final television debate which could prove the decisive encounter.
The media mogul and the former economics professor make one of the odder couples in politics. Mr Prodi is a figure of menace to Mr Berlusconi, as the only man who has beaten him in an election (in 1996). Yet common sense suggests that the Alligator (the title of a new film hostile to Mr Berlusconi) should have little difficulty in finishing off the Panda (the animal to whom Mr Prodi is sometimes compared on account of his cuddliness and vagueness).
They are a study in contrasting styles. "Look in the mirror in the morning," Mr Berlusconi urges his trainee advertising salesmen, "and like yourself, like yourself, like yourself ..." It's clear he follows his own advice, with his cocked eyebrow, nicely oiled hair transplant and gleaming teeth, every inch the 1950s cocktail lounge crooner, the Latin lover.
If Mr Prodi notices who is gazing back at him from the bathroom mirror one would be surprised: over the years he has perfected his impression of the rumpled, mumbling, ever-cogitating absent-minded Professor Branestawm. But the appearance he gives of hauling up his lapidary remarks from some deep well of wisdom, or possibly over a crackly hotline from God, seems to do him no harm.
Mr Berlusconi is the Great Communicator, but the last television clash went on points to Mr Prodi - mainly because Mr Berlusconi performed so badly. Television debate in Italy is normally about who can shout the other man down. For these debates strict American rules governing who speaks and for how long have been adopted, and Mr Berlusconi appeared like an angry animal caged within the rules, even devoting part of his final direct appeal to the electorate to a protest at the format. Mr Prodi, mild and softly spoken, benefited greatly from the fact that the Prime Minister had to shut up and listen while he spoke.
Tonight, analysts expect, will be very different. For one thing, the campaign has flared into life since Friday, when the Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, challenged the centre left on its tax plans. The opposition has said it will reintroduce inheritance tax, abolished by Mr Berlusconi, but has failed to specify at what level. It has also said that it will raise tax on income from bonds and stock market capital gains, but Mr Tremonti said reform would yield only small change.
Damage has been inflicted. Polls are banned at this stage in Italy's campaign, but the country's top pollster, Renato Mannheimer, wrote in Corriere della Sera newspaper yesterday: "The fear of an increase in the tax burden has caused some upset, provoking light damage for the centre left."
In the last polls to be published, the centre right was trailing by between 3.5 and 5 percentage points.
So tonight's debate is likely to be a livelier affair than the one a fortnight back, which, though watched by 16 million Italians, was widely described as boring. Lucia Annunziata, host of a talk show which Mr Berlusconi abandoned angrily in mid-stream a few weeks back, warned Mr Prodi to be prepared for a similar coup de théâtre. "He might stand up, pinch Prodi's cheek or something of the sort, try and turn the thing into an event which people will talk about and which will attract sympathy. So Prodi should be prepared to respond to the unpredictable with the unpredictable, to be ironic, cutting, quick."
No more holy smiles and panda expressions, then? "No, no, those are fine, that's his image, and it's what makes him different from the Prime Minister." But she urged more self-assertion. "Last time he played the part of the calm and competent professor versus the alligator. This time he needs to give the impression that he wants to win."
If Mr Prodi were really to assert himself, he might tackle the flagrant conflict of interest between Berlusconi the Prime Minister and Berlusconi the media mogul. Despite strict rules mandating equal coverage to parties, Rete4, one of the Prime Minister's three channels, was last week found to have devoted nearly 80 per cent of its election coverage to Mr Berlusconi's coalition over recent weeks. But it is an issue that the opposition has rarely even raised.
In La Repubblica newspaper yesterday the eminent political scientist Giovanni Sartori said the left was "scared of being accused of pursuing a vendetta" against Mr Berlusconi. They had "a good law on the books" 12 years ago to deal with the problem in a permanent manner, he went on, "but they haven't had the courage to propose it again ... I am astounded by the fear, timidity and stupidity of the left." But can a panda change its spots?Reuse content