By Isla Binnie
ROME (Reuters) – Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and fellow leaders of his center-right alliance made their first, and only, joint appearance on Thursday in an effort to project an image of unity ahead of the March 4 election.
Opponents say their failure to share a stage earlier in the campaign, which kicked off in January, shows they are deeply divided, but Berlusconi said they were in regular touch behind the scenes and ready to govern.
“At this point we can tell you that we are relatively satisfied with how the campaign has gone,” Berlusconi said, sitting between Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League, and Giorgia Meloni, head of the nationalist Brothers of Italy.
Before a blackout was imposed on new opinion polls two weeks ago, the center-right alliance was seen winning around 36 percent of the vote, a score that would give it more seats than any other bloc, but falling short of an absolute majority.
Italy has a long history of finding a way out of apparently intractable political stalemate and newspaper commentators have speculated that in the event of a hung parliament, Berlusconi would seek a broad coalition with the center-left.
However, the billionaire businessman, who cannot be prime minister in a future government because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction, emphatically ruled this out on Thursday.
“We have all, each one of us, made an absolute pledge to reject coalitions … with other parties, even if we don’t achieve a majority on our own,” said the 81-year-old Berlusconi, referring to his disparate allies.
“Since this is a commitment that we made during the election campaign, we will stick to it because we all agree that the most important moral thing in politics is to maintain pledges made to voters during the campaign.”
Berlusconi and Salvini have agreed that in the case of outright victory, whichever of their respective parties wins most votes will decide who should be prime minister.
On Thursday, it was clear who was in command, with Berlusconi acting as ring master. At one point he reached over and wiped Salvini’s brow after the League leader said he had covered 15,000 km (9,300 miles) on the campaign trail.
Salvini has pushed an anti-immigrant, anti-European message at his rallies, presenting a much more extremist image than the urbane Berlusconi, who has portrayed himself as a moderate.
“Some people say they want more Europe, I say there should be more Italy,” said Salvini, who wants Italy to quit the euro currency as soon as it is politically feasible.
Critics say the alliance would be unable to hold together in government given their different policy positions.
“The center-right in Italy is fake news. It is just a mishmash,” Matteo Orfini, president of the ruling center-left Democratic Party, told Huffington Post on Thursday.
The Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, is expected to come third on Sunday, with the center-right leading the field and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement coming second.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Janet Lawrence)