ROME -- In recent days, millions of Italians received an official-looking envelope that boldly read "IMPORTANT NOTICE. Reimbursement of IMU 2012" with a letter inside explaining that an unpopular property tax levied last year would be refunded either through a bank transfer or in cash.
Reading the fine print, however -- or noticing the small logo in the corner -- Italians discovered that the sender was not the revenue agency but rather the party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and that the letter was merely a final campaign promise ahead of the national vote this weekend.
The initiative met with howls of protest.
The departing prime minister, Mario Monti, accused Mr. Berlusconi of trying to "buy the votes of Italians with the state's money." Luigi Bersani, leader of the Democratic Party and the front-runner, according to polls, condemned the letter as a "fraud."
But the letter underscored a cause -- promises of lower taxes and tax amnesties -- that has taken hold among not only Mr. Berlusconi's main opponents but also smaller groups that are new to the electoral process and are garnering serious attention.
One of those is Act to Stop the Decline, a pro-business, liberal-libertarian political movement that is participating in the elections for the first time and is advocating for reducing the tax burden on Italians by 5 percent in five years. The difference with other political parties, many say, is that Stop the Decline actually has a credible road map for achieving its objectives -- eliminating a regional tax and using money recovered from tax evaders to lower income taxes.
"This is one of the few parties that not only has a program that sets out what it will do, but also how they're going to go about it.
Other parties are mostly vague," Aldo Parisi, a bus driver, said Tuesday night at a Rome theater where Stop the Decline staged "An Italian Dinner," a play dealing with myriad social problems, from youth unemployment to the lack of a welfare system.
One of the group's other central goals is to reduce Italy's staggering national debt by 20 percent of gross domestic product in five years.
To this end, the group would sell off state assets and state shares in formerly public companies, and reduce public expenditures.
The play is one of the quirky campaign strategies -- also including flash mobs and an adept use of social media -- that have propelled Stop the Decline into the public sphere. Founded in a matter of months last summer by a group of Italian economists, mostly university professors abroad, it has garnered 100,000 members and injected tough-economic-love messages into the electoral debate.
"We shared a sense of urgency that people who know the economy have with regards to Italy," said Oscar Giannino, a journalist turned economic pundit who is the party's candidate for prime minister.
The economists who founded the party include Michele Boldrin of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; Sandro Brusco of Stony Brook University in New York State; and Andrea Moro of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Nearly two decades of ineffectual policies that slowed Italy's economic growth into a near standstill convinced them that the country was taking the wrong path, and that they could suggest alternative -- and untested -- remedies.
The movement is unlikely to make huge inroads in the election, with some polls predicting it will win less than 2 percent of the vote. The big winner is expected to be the Democratic Left, at least in the lower house, followed by what most pollsters say will be the unexpected success of the comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, which is mining the deep disaffection that Italians have for their political class. Mr. Monti, who is supported by a centrist coalition, will probably trail Mr. Berlusconi in the vote.
But Stop the Decline was showing strong inroads in Lombardy, one of the swing regions, though the group's popularity might be dented somewhat by the revelations this week that Mr. Giannino lied about his academic credentials. He resigned as party president but remains the candidate for prime minister.
Even with the resignation, a rare occurrence in Italy, Mr. Giannino has retained a loyal following.
"He has ideas, ideologies, and I think he'll be a good leader in the future if not now," said Camilla Beretta, 18, a Milanese student taking university courses in Rome.
"Italy needs new faces, young people, honest people," she said. "I have to be hopeful. Even if really I am not."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.