As Chaotic Election Looms, Italy Lives Up to Reputation

ROME -- Italy is living up to its image as a country with a talent for chaos, not knowing whether it can hold a general election in just 10 days and rejecting the French rescue of loss-making airline Alitalia.

Throw in a mozzarella health scare and a politician called Pizza and you get the perfect ingredients for an Italian cliche -- though many Italians fail to see the funny side.

The outbreak of chaos finally spiced up an unusually dull campaign, in which conservative ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has refrained from outrageous quips and made worthy promises similar to his center-left rival, Rome's ex-mayor Walter Veltroni.

Both are upset at the prospect of a delay to the vote caused by a court ruling that the tiny Christian Democrat party -- led by Giuseppe Pizza and banned from the election because its logo was identical to the larger Union of Christian Democrats -- should be allowed to run.

Italians may not know until an appeals court ruling next Tuesday whether the general election will go ahead the following Sunday and Monday, or be postponed for further legal wrangling.

"How can we, at the end of the electoral campaign, tell the country we were only joking?" said Fausto Bertinotti, communist candidate for prime minister and a distant third in polls.

"We'd be on the verge of disaster. Our nation would lose all credibility," said Bertinotti, head of parliament's lower house.

Whoever wins the election faces the urgent task of tackling a looming recession in the euro zone's third-biggest economy and repairing national pride, hurt last week when one of Italy's top culinary exports -- buffalo-milk mozzarella cheese -- was briefly banned in some countries in a scare over toxic dioxins.