ROME 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 February 24-25 vote two weeks away, polls suggest the center-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 center-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 center-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 favored 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 center-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 favorite.
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 center-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 center-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.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Jason Webb)