By Frances D'Emilio
ROME -- Media mogul Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday promised Italians that if they vote him back into office, he will abolish an unpopular tax on primary residences and refund property taxes Premier Mario Monti's government made them pay in 2012 as a key austerity measure to rescue the country from the eurozone debt crisis.
Berlusconi abolished the tax in 2008, when he was elected for a third term as premier, to fulfill a campaign promise. But the tax was immediately revived when Monti, an economist and former European Union commissioner, replaced him in 2011 as Italy sunk deeper into the debt crisis.
Berlusconi is a 76-year-old populist trying for a political comeback despite a recent criminal conviction for tax fraud and other judicial woes, including a trial in which he is charged with paying for sex with an underage teenage girl. He claims he is the innocent victim of prosecutors he contends sympathize with the left.
He told a gathering of applauding supporters in Milan that the property tax so spooked Italians that they cut back on buying consumer goods, and quit investing, aggravating the economic crisis in recession-mired Italy.
"This tax caused Italian families worry, anxiety, fear of the future," Berlusconi said, contending that tax so depressed the real estate market that 360,000 people become unemployed, including bricklayers, artisans, locksmiths and electricians.
He insisted the revenue lost by reimbursing homeowners the 4 billion euros ($5.4 billion) they paid in property taxes could be compensated by eliminating state financing for political parties, raising taxes on non-essential goods like cigarettes and lottery tickets, and taxing Italians' financial instruments' income in Switzerland.
Cost-cutting measures to compensate the lost revenue would also include halving the number of legislators, a proposed reform that has gone nowhere including during Berlusconi's tenure in the premier's office.