Leading article: The return of a political comedian

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The Independent Online

Election campaigns are never dull affairs when Silvio Berlusconi is involved. Ever happy to play the role of political comedian, the former Italian prime minister guarantees voters exuberant and shrill electioneering. But the possible return to power of Mr Berlusconi is no laughing matter at a time when Italy faces a series of deep-rooted problems.

In the run-up to tomorrow's general election, Mr Berlusconi has again dipped into his old bag of populist tricks, suggesting fantastic policies such as the introduction of a tax-free month, and calling for mental health tests for prosecutors. He has also attacked his rival, Walter Veltroni, with accusations that he remains a communist.

With opinion polls banned in the fortnight prior to the election, the current mood of the electorate is difficult to gauge. But in contrast to Mr Berlusconi, Mr Veltroni has been relaxed, self-assured and understated.

And a cool head is what Italy desperately needs. The problems facing the country are legion. Economic growth has all but ground to a halt, the public debt is unsustainably high, and the chasm between the rich north and the impoverished south continues to widen. Italy also faces a skills shortage and a bloated bureaucracy. This is a country in dire need of hard solutions, rather than policy-light theatrics.

In fact, the policy promises of both men have been similar and cautious. They have both pledged to cut taxes and streamline public administration. But Mr Berlusconi's election antics cannot hide his poor record of delivery. Italians might well recall his 2001 campaign, in which he promised an economic miracle. The miracle, of course, never came. Mr Veltroni, on the other hand, is committed to tackling Italy's political instability, using his new centre-left party to bridge the Catholic and communist divide that has hampered Italian politics for so long.

But there can be little doubt that electing Mr Berlusconi, a man unwilling to make difficult policy decisions and incapable of garnering broad support, will do nothing to set Italy back on the road to recovery.