Media mogul Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday promised Italians that if they vote him back into office, he will abolish an unpopular tax on primary residences and refund property taxes Premier Mario Monti's government made them pay in 2012 as a key austerity measure to rescue the country from the eurozone debt crisis.
Berlusconi abolished the tax in 2008, when he was elected for a third term as premier, to fulfill a campaign promise. But the tax was immediately revived when Monti, an economist and former European Union commissioner, replaced him in 2011 as Italy sunk deeper into the debt crisis.
Berlusconi is a 76-year-old populist trying for a political comeback despite a recent criminal conviction for tax fraud and other judicial woes, including a trial in which he is charged with paying for sex with an underage teenage girl. He claims he is the innocent victim of prosecutors he contends sympathize with the left.
He told a gathering of applauding supporters in Milan that the property tax so spooked Italians that they cut back on buying consumer goods, and quit investing, aggravating the economic crisis in recession-mired Italy.
"This tax caused Italian families worry, anxiety, fear of the future," Berlusconi said, contending that tax so depressed the real estate market that 360,000 people become unemployed, including bricklayers, artisans, locksmiths and electricians.
He insisted the revenue lost by reimbursing homeowners the €4 billion ($5.4 billion) they paid in property taxes could be compensated by eliminating state financing for political parties, raising taxes on non-essential goods like cigarettes and lottery tickets, and taxing Italians' financial instruments' income in Switzerland.
Cost-cutting measures to compensate the lost revenue would also include halving the number of legislators, a proposed reform that has gone nowhere including during Berlusconi's tenure in the premier's office.
The populist's center-right forces trail a center-left coalition in opinion polls before Feb. 24-25 elections. Monti, heading a centrist ticket, trails even farther back, but his forces could prove to hold the key to forming a coalition since no one ticket is expected to get enough seats in Parliament to govern alone.
Berlusconi didn't mention that his Freedom People legislators in Parliament approved nearly all of Monti's austerity measures, including the same property tax he is now vowing to eliminate at his first Cabinet meeting should he be victorious at the ballot box.
With the economy stagnant, unemployment rising and Italians growing weary of sacrifices imposed by the government, Berlusconi withdrew his party's support for Monti late last year, forcing elections to be called about two months ahead of time.
Monti sarcastically commented on Berlusconi's promise to reimburse property owners for the tax paid last year. "He's magnificent," Monti told reporters. "Berlusconi governed for so many years and maintained none, any of his promises," including one to reduce income taxes.
"What's more, he created many problems, so much so that he had to leave" office, Monti added. While Berlusconi is trying to be elected premier for the fourth time, "Italians have good memories, I believe," Monti said.
Berlusconi has been coy on whether he would be premier again should his forces should win the election. On Sunday, he added a new twist, saying he would be economy minister, joking that he would hold that post if his top aide "would let him."
Front-runner Pier Luigi Bersani has seen a slight drop in support in the polls for his center-left campaign coalition, possibly because of fallout from a widening scandal involving an Italian bank whose board included some backers from his Democratic Left Party. Running third in some polls and ahead of Monti is a comic and political agitator, Beppe Grillo.
The same polls have found that roughly a third of eligible voters saying they are either undecided or won't vote.