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Italy’s wide-open election will determine intensity of euro crisis this year

Five-Star Movement activist and comedian Beppe Grillo.

© STRINGER Italy / Reuters/REUTERS

How to win votes? Promise to drop taxes.

The formula worked for Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's three-time prime minister now engaged in his sixth campaign. One of his rivals, Mario Monti, is giving it a shot too. The man who raised taxes as part of his "Save Italy" austerity campaign, launched 14 months ago, when he replaced Mr. Berlusconi, now apparently believes they can come down.

On SkyTG24 television Sunday night, Mr. Monti, 69, said "taxes need to be cut, but no one should be making promises that cannot be kept."

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Specifically, he said there is the "possibility" of reducing the national income tax (known as IRPEF) by one percentage point, freeze the value-added tax, which was raised by his government, and restructure the hated property tax that he introduced and which Mr. Berlusconi has vowed to scrap. Doing so does not necessarily mean Mr. Monti will cut it; it does mean that a greater proportion of the property tax might be set aside for struggling municipal governments.

Mr. Monti's reversal on tax hikes is capturing the imagination of some voters ahead of the election, which is to be held on Feb. 24 and Feb. 24. The latest poll, released Sunday by ISPO, gave Mr. Monti's centrist bloc about 15 per cent, putting it in third place, just ahead of the Five Star Movement led by comedian and anti-corruption activist Beppe Grillo. Previous polls had put the centrists at a mere 10 per cent.

The centre-left coalition, led by former communist Pier Luigi Bersani, remains in first place, with about 38 per cent, while Mr. Berlusoni's centre-right bloc, which now includes its former partner, the Northern League, could pull as much as 28 per cent of the vote.

To non-Italians and many Italians themselves, the election is confusing: Blocs from the right, centre and left, a comedian with enough popularity to take entire regions (Mr. Grillo's movement won the recent Sicilian elections), a resurgent Mr. Berlusconi and a wannabe technical prime minister, Mr. Monti, who is campaigning but not officially in the election (he is not a candidate because, as a senator for life, he is already a parliamentarian).

What is certain is that the Italian election is crucial for the health of Italy, the euro zone's third largest economy, and, by extension, the health of Europe. The country is in deep recession, is leaderless – Mr. Monti, who resigned last month, is the caretaker premier – and is too big to bail out if it were to get shut out of the debt markets, as Greece, Ireland and Portugal were. While Italy's sovereign bond yields have fallen considerably since Mr. Monti set up his unelected government, every European finance minister knows that another scent of blood could lure bond investors in for the kill.

A clear victory by Mr. Monti's centrists, who are backed by the Italian industrialists, the Vatican and European leaders, or by Mr. Bersani's centre-left, would welcomed by the markets. While Mr. Monti has shifted from tax hiker to tax cutter, he has vowed to keep the economic reform agenda intact. For his part, Mr. Bersani has vowed to do pretty much the same; austerity would not be scrapped should he win, though it probably would be diluted somewhat, a la Francois Hollande in France. Mr. Bersani had a credible record as a reformist in previous centre-left governments.

But the markets may not get what they want. Together, Mr. Berlusconi's party, PdL, and the Northern League, which is based in Milan and wants to separate the rich industrial north from the rest of the country, could deny Mr. Bersani's bloc the majority it needs (in Italy, majorities are required in both the Senate and the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, to govern). Then there is Mr. Grillo. While his movement is sinking in the polls, it remains a competitive threat.

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With the number of undecided voters at somewhere under 40 per cent, the election remains wide open with six weeks to go. A hung parliament is a possibility. So is a hung Italy. If the electoral battleground produces no clear winner, Italy's economic reform will stall and investors will seek revenge. The intensity of the euro zone crisis will be decided next month.

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About the Author
European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

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