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Berlusconi's coalition rises in polls ahead of Italian vote

FILE PHOTO: Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during the television talk show 'Porta a Porta' (Door to Door) in Rome, Italy June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Remo Casilli/File Photo

(reuters_tickers)

By Isla Binnie

ROME (Reuters) - A centre-right coalition around former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's party is steadily climbing in opinion polls as a campaign heats up for Italy's elections on March 4.

Surveys conducted by Tecne and IPR showed the centre right far outstripping both a centre-left coalition led by the ruling Democratic Party (PD), and Italy's single most popular party, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

Italy's complex electoral mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post makes a hung parliament likely, stoking fears political instability could stunt a modest recovery in the euro zone's third-largest economy.

But Berlusconi's group looks "very close" to being able to obtain a parliamentary majority, said Tecne chairman Carlo Buttaroni.

The four-time prime minister cannot personally stand for office because of a 2013 conviction for tax fraud.

Support from 39.2 percent of voters in the Tecne poll takes it towards the 40 percent which is considered the necessary base for a bloc to have a realistic chance of governing alone. The IPR poll gave it 38 percent.

As well as clearing this threshold, a party or coalition must beat the second-placed hopefuls by more than 12 percentage points, Buttaroni said. Both Tecne and IPR showed the second-placed 5-Star lagging by 10 percentage points or more.

As support for the PD erodes, 5-Star now comfortably beats it as the most popular party, with a lead of six points according to IPR and more than seven according to Tecne.

Parties across the spectrum have pledged to change or scrap European Union budget rules, cut taxes and spend more.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy!) and its main ally, the anti-immigration Northern League, have also pledged to change or abolish reforms of pensions and the labour market which have been welcomed by the European Union.

Following a joint pledge over the weekend to halt planned increases in the retirement age, Berlusconi was asked on Wednesday by state radio RAI whether he would scrap the "Jobs Act" that was the flagship reform of former prime minister Matteo Renzi.

Berlusconi said, "Yes, because it was an injection that gave a temporary boost, but only to fixed-term contracts." All of the jobs created in the three months to November last year were temporary contracts, data showed on Tuesday.

Support for the PD has slumped to 22.0 percent according to IPR and 20.7 percent according to Tecne. Adding in their allies, the whole centre-left coalition scores 27.5 percent and 25 percent in the respective polls.

Renzi is leading the PD into the election a little more than a year after resigning when Italians voted against a constitutional reform he proposed in a referendum.

"For the PD (and voters), it's like two people who were once in love," Buttaroni said. "The referendum was like a break-up, then every attempt to rebuild that relationship is irritating."

Despite being set to get more votes than any other party, 5-Star's opposition to coalition-building means it is considered unlikely to get the first chance to try to form a government.

(Additional reporting by Francesca Piscioneri and Gavin Jones; editing by Andrew Roche)

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