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Centre-left primary debate hailed as ground-breaker

Alliances only issue to unleash sparks between five

Centre-left primary debate hailed as ground-breaker

Rome, November 13 - Monday's debate between the five candidates bidding to lead the centre left at next spring's general elections was hailed as a ground-breaking moment for Italian politics on Tuesday. The debate was hosted by satellite broadcaster Sky, which also screened it on a free-to-air digital channel, with an American-style quiz show format in which the candidates were given a minute or a minute and a half to answer questions pitched to them all. Political pundits largely agreed that frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani, the secretary of the main centre-left Democratic Party (PD), and second-favourite Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who is also in the PD, both gave capable displays. Renzi, who presents himself as a modernizer and is campaigning for Italy's political class to be rejuvenated, looked the most comfortable of the five with the format. Nichi Vendola, the openly gay governor of Puglia and the head of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party, was seen as scoring well too. Bruno Tabacci, a member of the Catholic centrist wing of the PD, and Laura Puppato, a businesswoman and PD councillor in the Veneto regional assembly, were viewed to have given less accomplished performances. The discussion failed to produce any truly fiery exchanges, in contrast with the often angry scenes frequently seen on Italian political talk shows. But it was entertaining nevertheless and produced record viewing figures for Sky, with an average of 1,885,816 people tuned in during the prime-time broadcast, 6.22% of the viewing audience. The debate also generated around 100,000 unique tweets, 20 a second during the hottest moments of the debate, and two hashtags related to it, #csxfactor and #ilconfrontoskytg24, were the top trending issues on Twitter worldwide late on Monday. It was seen as a step forward for a political class that has been hit by corruption scandals and is widely perceived as being detached from the needs of voters. "Yesterday's debate will probably not determine the winner of the primary for the centre-left candidate," read an editorial in Tuesday's edition of Turin-based daily La Stampa. "But it will be difficult to go back from the way of conducting politics, or political propaganda, that was baptised in our country yesterday evening. "How old those debates between (former premiers Romano) Prodi and (Silvio) Berlusconi, looked compared to yesterday's OK Corral". Prodi and Berlusconi faced off three times in TV debates before elections in 2006 and 1996, both of which Prodi won. The only issue that caused sparks of tension on Monday was that of electoral coalitions, with Bersani saying he was open to forming an alliance with the centrist Catholic UDC. Vendola said he could not envisage his party and the UDC being in the same alliance and Renzi also dismissed the notion. The five all said that they were unhappy with controversial labour reforms introduced by Premier Mario Monti's emergency technocrat government that make it easier for firms to fire workers. The candidates also agreed that gay people should have the right to wed in civil unions, although, unlike Vendola, Bersani and Renzi did not give backing to allowing gay couples to adopt children. They did not rule this out either. The centre-left primary will take place on November 25, with a run-off between the top two candidates a week later if no one claims more than 50% in the first round. The PD is ahead in the polls, with close to 30% of Italians saying they intend to vote for the party at next year's elections. The second biggest group is comedian Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment Five Star movement, which is making big gains with the help of widespread skepticism about the party system. Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PdL) party is third. The centre-right party has been hit by big corruption scandals in Lazio and Lombardy recently and by the media magnate's fall after he resigned from the helm of government a year ago with the financial crisis threatening to spiral out of control. The PdL is set to hold primaries to choose its premier candidate next month.

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