* Berlusconi accused of trying to "buy votes"
* Centre-right says Monti eyeing pact with left
* Campaign entering countdown to Feb. 24-25 vote
By James Mackenzie
ROME, Feb 10 Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti
accused his media magnate rival Silvio Berlusconi of trying to
buy votes with impossible promises on Sunday as Italy's election
campaign entered its last phase.
With the Feb. 24-25 vote two weeks away, polls suggest the
centre-left Democratic Party (PD) will win a solid lower house
majority but may need a deal with Monti's centrists to gain the
control of the Senate it must have to govern.
Although both centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and
Monti have rejected suggestions of an unspoken deal, their
attacks have concentrated heavily on 76-year-old former prime
minister Berlusconi, whose strong campaigning has eaten into
Bersani's once-huge opinion poll lead.
Berlusconi "continues to make promises that try to buy the
votes of Italians with money that belongs to Italians", Monti
told a rally in Milan, pointing to the centre-right leader's
promises of sweeping tax cuts if he wins.
Berlusconi, who stepped down in 2011 as the financial crisis
threatened to push Italy's huge public debt out of control, has
hammered away with calls for lower taxes and an abolition of the
hated IMU housing levy passed by Monti's technocrat government.
Last week, he also said he favoured a sweeping amnesty on
unpaid taxes although he later said this was not part of his
coalition's official platform.
"This may be able to stir up popularity but it would be the
proof of a country completely lacking any memory," Monti said.
In a separate television interview, the former European
Commissioner said Italy's partners feared a return of
Berlusconi, who has made attacks on the EU and German Chancellor
Angela Merkel a central feature of his campaign.
"They've had enough of an Italy which puts itself, the euro
zone and Europe at risk through its political fragility, its
inability to take decisions and its financial indiscipline," he
told TGCom24 television.
Roberto Maroni, head of Berlusconi's coalition partners, the
pro-devolution Northern League, who is running for governor of
Lombardy, home of the financial capital Milan, said Monti was
preparing for a de facto alliance with the left.
"Monti is ready to commit incest with Bersani to get his
hands on Lombardy," he tweeted on Sunday.
Speculation over post-election alliances has increased in
the wake of a non-stop media campaign by Berlusconi that has
enabled him to cut the centre-left lead to around six points and
threaten what had once appeared its near-certain victory.
Election rules give a minimum 54 percent lower house
majority to the group winning the biggest overall vote share.
But the upper house race depends on a series of separate
regional contests and could be decided by results in big regions
like Lombardy and Sicily, where polls show no clear favourite.
PD officials dismiss suggestions they will be unable to form
a government but Bersani faces a potential dilemma as the
prospects increases he will have to seek an alliance with Monti
for a Senate majority.
Monti said on Sunday he had always had "excellent relations"
with Bersani but he has been sharply critical of the PD leader's
leftist allies such as Nichi Vendola, leader of the small Left
Freedom Ecology (SEL) party, or Susanna Camusso, head of the
CGIL trade union.
Vendola and Camusso have been sharply critical of the
austerity policies imposed by Monti's technocrat government,
accusing it of pushing Italy into recession, creating record
unemployment and heaping misery on ordinary Italians.
Bersani has refused to drop Vendola and says a centre-left
government would not represent a radical departure from the
pro-European course set by Monti.
Last week, he sent deputy party leader Enrico Letta to
London to reassure international investors that Italy did not
risk sliding back on its budget and economic reform commitments
if the centre-left wins power.
Letta said there were questions about Vendola but added the
bankers he spoke to were more concerned about another outcome.
"The big worries and the big questions were about the
possibilities of a Berlusconi victory," he told Reuters.