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Berlusconi’s $5.4 Billion Giveaway Vow Draws Monti’s Scorn

Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi
Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi yesterday pledged to refund tax payments on first homes from a levy imposed by Monti’s government, which Berlusconi supported for a year. Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Silvio Berlusconi’s campaign promise to give Italian taxpayers a cash rebate of 4 billion euros ($5.4 billion) was criticized by Prime Minister Mario Monti as an attempt to buy votes.

“We can call it a quid pro quo or even a friendly attempt at corruption,” Monti said today in an interview with RTL 102.5 radio. “Berlusconi wants to buy the votes of Italians with the money that Italians had to turn over to cover up the shortfall left in the public accounts by Berlusconi, who governed for eight of the past 10 years.”

The rivalry between Monti and Berlusconi, a three time former premier, has escalated as Italy approaches parliamentary elections Feb. 24-25. Monti replaced Berlusconi as premier in November 2011 and imposed austerity to protect Italy from the worst of the Europe’s debt crisis. Berlusconi is pinning his comeback attempt on a pledge to roll back Monti’s budget rigor and yesterday announced his plan for a tax rebate.

“That man there, Monti, increased unemployment by half a million in 13 months of government,” Berlusconi said today in an interview televised on La7. “These are the real things. Not the baloney that people keep repeating.”

Paid in Cash

The tax rebate would be completed in cash or by a current account deposit within a month if Italians return Berlusconi to power, the former premier said yesterday at a press conference in Milan. The refund regards tax payments on first residences made by Italians last year on Monti’s new property levy, known as IMU. Berlusconi had previously promised to abolish parts of IMU.

Berlusconi, the most successful politician of his generation, is gaining in public opinion polls even as he stands trial on charges he paid a minor for sex and appeals a four-year prison sentence for tax fraud. His anti-austerity push has resonated with Italians hurt by recession and weary of the tax increases put in place by Monti.

Berlusconi, 76, closed the gap with front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani to 5 percentage points in an SWG Institute survey last week. He has denied all charges in the sex-with-minor trial, which also includes an allegation Berlusconi abused the power of his office.

First Homes

The refund on last year’s tax on first homes, valued at about 4 billion euros, will be covered through an agreement with Switzerland with regard to taxation of financial activities in Switzerland by Italian citizens, Berlusconi said. Such an agreement will translate into proceeds of as much as 30 billion euros plus 5 billion euros a year when at full capacity, he said.

Berlusconi had previously pledged to finance the future elimination of the IMU on first homes through raising taxes on gambling, tobacco and alcohol. The three-time premier also said today that he would support an amnesty for Italians who owe back taxes and yesterday said he would eliminate a regional corporate levy known as Irap in five years.

Support for Berlusconi’s center-right coalition rose 1.3 points in a week to 27.8 percent, while Bersani’s center-left block fell 1.6 points to 32.8 percent, according to the SWG poll released on Feb. 1. Monti, seeking a second term, is part of a coalition that registered 14.2 percent support. SWG reported 30 percent of respondents as undecided or abstentions.

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