ITALIANS choose between conservative billionaire and incumbent center-left

Sunday, May 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROME (AP) _ Turnout was heavy in Sunday's Italian election, much to the delight of underdog Francesco Rutelli.

``We think this is a good sign,'' Rutelli, the center-left candidate for prime minister, told reporters who mobbed him as he left a suburban Rome polling station after casting his vote.

Italians were choosing between the center-left that has governed for five years and conservative media baron Silvio Berlusconi, who served as prime minister for seven months in 1994 and has tried ever since to regain power.

Turnout is traditionally well over 80 percent in Italy, and early voting was brisk Sunday. Nearly a fifth of Italy's 49.5 million voters had gone to the polls by noon, the Interior Ministry said.

Analysts said it appeared millions of Italians were waiting to the last minute to make up their minds. Rutelli, Rome's former mayor, targeted them in his last-minute appeals.

Federica Mollela was still wavering as she stood in line at a polling place in central Rome. But she was looking favorably on the city's personable ex-mayor.

``Rutelli is better-looking,'' she mused. ``And Berlusconi is too rich, always thinking of himself. I think I'll vote for Rutelli.''

The specter of a big undecided swing to Rutelli had a middle-aged Berlusconi supporter, Luca di Santo, worried as he waited to cast his ballot.

``There are too many people who are undecided who I think will vote for Rutelli,'' he said.

The center-left goes into the election with some solid economic accomplishments, among them guiding Italy into the charter club of the common European currency. But it was handicapped by internal bickering that helped make Rutelli, 46, the underdog in the race.

The campaign was a bitter one dominated by personalities rather than issues. Berlusconi belittled Rutelli throughout the campaign and refused to debate him.

Berlusconi's own vote in Milan, his hometown, did not go smoothly, Italian news agencies said.

First, he ran into a man who said he was Rutelli's cousin, Paolo Rutelli. ``You didn't want to meet my cousin,'' the man said. ``But at least now you're meeting me.''

A startled Berlusconi replied: ``He didn't merit it.''

Another voter, an elderly woman, spied the balding billionaire and cried out, ``You ought to be ashamed of yourself!'' Berlusconi turned to reporters: ``See? This is the fruit of the campaign of hatred they sowed.''

Sunday's election represents Berlusconi's second try at a comeback. His 1996 bid ended in failure and brought the center-left to power for the first time.

Berlusconi's campaign began on a high note, with a big lead in the polls. But Rutelli, a steady, sober campaigner, appears to have closed in on his rival in the final weeks.

Both at home and abroad, Berlusconi, 64, has been dogged by questions about conflicts of interest. He presides over a financial empire worth more than $12 billion, and has not offered to divest himself of any assets if elected.

Questions also persist about his choice of right-wing allies _ the once-fascist National Alliance and the often-xenophobic Northern League. Berlusconi's forces in Sicily also allied with the Tricolor Flame, an openly neo-fascist party.

Berlusconi's economic policy has also come under close scrutiny, especially in European capitals. Both he and Rutelli promised to reduce taxes, but Berlusconi has promised deeper cuts coupled with pension increases. Rutelli says this could jeopardize Italy's participation in the euro.