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Italian Leftists Form Pact As March Vote Draws Closer

ITALY'S center and right-wing politicians are under mounting pressure to form a coalition to rival a new eight-party leftist alliance launched Tuesday ahead of March general elections.

The left stole a lead in the scramble to form alliances - seen as the key to victory under a new simple majority electoral system - with the launch of the ``Progressive'' pact led by the ex-communist Democratic Party of the Left.

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Also unveiled Tuesday was a ``freedom alliance'' formed by millionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi with two small centrist groups, the Christian Democratic Center and the Union of the Center.

Mr. Berlusconi entered politics last week at the head of a conservative ``Forza Italia'' (Go Italy) movement and is trying to put together an alliance that can credibly challenge the left.

One of Italy's richest men, Berlusconi still faces the tricky task of wooing other parties, including the pro-autonomy Northern League, into a pact.

The Progressives' five-page policy statement contained a pledge to create jobs and social equality as well as a firm commitment to continue measures to reduce Italy's huge budget deficit.

It also expressed qualified support for Italy's current ambitious privatization program.

Opinion polls show that the leftists could receive about 40 percent in the March 27-28 poll, in which voters are set to toss a corruption-stained old guard from office. That could be enough to give them power at the expense of a splintered center-right.

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