Berlusconi woos the voters with promise to give away €157bn
Silvio Berlusconi launched his election campaign yesterday, promising a series of welfare benefits including a minimum monthly "dignity income" of €1,000.
The basic income would be paid universally to ensure a minimum salary is received by all Italians - whether they are in work or not.
The conservative former prime minister, himself a billionaire, also promised fiscal immunity for companies that hire apprentices, tax cuts and free veterinary treatment for domestic pets.
"Unfortunately there are in Italy 4.75 million people who live in absolute poverty," the media mogul told 101 -Radio.
"They have increased by 65pc in 10 years. This is unacceptable for a European country. Nobody can live well, even if they are well off, knowing that around us there are millions of Italians who have to live on public assistance or private charity."
Mr Berlusconi (81) said that his Forza Italia party would provide "fiscal easing for people who take care of a domestic animal, so as to make it easier to adopt dogs and cats".
"We are thinking of free fortnightly or monthly visits and to remove -for old people or those who do not live well - VAT on pet food," he said.
Mr Berlusconi made his pledges as Sergio Mattarella, the Italian president, last night dissolved parliament and called a general election on March 4.
Paolo Gentiloni, the prime minister, said his centre-Left government had steered Italy through its worst post-war crisis, curtailing migration from North Africa and increasing growth.
He poured scorn on "more or less fantastic" promises of a state-funded minimum income from Mr Berlusconi and the opposition Five Star Movement (M5S). Similar schemes are currently being tested in Finland and Holland.
Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister who leads Mr Gentiloni's party, estimated that Berlusconi's plan for a universal income of €1,000 a month for nine million underprivileged people would cost €157bn.
"How are they going to cover these costs?" Mr Renzi asked, "with Monopoly money?"
There are fears that the March 4 vote could produce a hung parliament, instability and possible market turbulence in the euro zone's third largest economy.
With opinion polls suggesting no one will win a parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said he would remain in office and ensure continuity until a new administration is in place.
As things stand, a centre-right alliance around Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) looks set to take the largest number of seats - potentially catapulting the 81-year-old four-times premier back to centre stage, even though he cannot become prime minister due to a tax fraud conviction.
Gentiloni told reporters at the end of his one-year spell in power that Italy should not fear uncertainty, noting that it was now common to many European countries.
"We mustn't dramatise the risk of instability, we are quite inoculated against it," he said, in reference to Italy's frequent changes of government, adding that elsewhere in Europe there has been "an Italianisation of political systems".
Germany is locked in talks to produce a new government after inconclusive elections, while Spain and Portugal have minority governments and Britain is in tangled negotiations over its exit from the European Union.
However, Italy, with the largest public debt in the eurozone after Greece and one of the bloc's highest jobless rates, is considered particularly vulnerable.
Its economy is on course this year for its firmest growth since 2010, but it remains among the most sluggish performers in Europe.
Gentiloni is the third prime minister since the last election in 2013, which also produced no clear winner.
His predecessor, Matteo Renzi, quit in December 2016 after voters threw out his planned constitutional reforms in a referendum.
Speaking earlier yesterday at the prime minister's traditional year-end news conference, Gentiloni appealed to parties not to peddle fear and make unrealistic promises.