Rome, February 18 - Outgoing Premier Mario Monti said Monday that his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi was scared of facing him in a televised election debate. Italian people look set to go to the polls next Sunday and Monday without having seen the main political leaders debate against each other because of disputes about who should take part. Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose coalition was ahead in the polls before a pre-election blackout of surveys kicked in earlier this month, wants the leaders of the six main groups to take part. Monti, who is standing on a reform platform backed by centrist parties, thinks he, Berlusconi and Bersani should take part. Berlusconi, whose centre-right coalition had been gaining ground on the centre left before the poll blackout, reiterated his position on Monday that it should be a straight showdown between him and Bersani, without Monti. "I'm in favour of a TV debate, but between the only two people who have a chance of winning," Berlusconi said on Italian radio. Monti, who took the helm of an emergency administration of unelected technocrats when Italy's financial crisis forced Berlusconi to resign as premier in November 2011, responded by accusing the 76-year-old media magnate of cowardice. "I imagine the reason is that he is particularly afraid of debating with me," said Monti. Nevertheless, Monti renewed a call for his rivals to reach an agreement. "We've had TV debates before the elections for years and they were considered useful," the former European commissioner said. "I don't understand why we shouldn't have one again this time. "Again I call for one to be held, not in my interest, but in the interest of the Italian people. "It's one thing to hear sermons or the fireworks of promises, it's another to have them challenged". Monti's ticket was fourth in the polls with around 13% of the vote before the blackout started. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement of Comedian Beppe Grillo, who snubs TV appearances, was third with around 15%. Grillo, who use the Internet and rallies to spread his message, was meant to give a rare interview to Sky Italia on Sunday but he cancelled it at the last minute.
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di Giovanni Pastore