By Catherine Hornby
ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's party has invited female supporters to sign a manifesto saying that their decision to vote for him does not make them worthy of ridicule.
"I am a woman, not a doll," begins the manifesto on the party's website and printed in a full-page advertisement in Italy's leading newspaper days before a general election that Berlusconi's centre right looks likely to lose.
Critics accuse the former prime minister of picking female politicians based on looks, and for exploiting scantily-clad starlets on his television shows.
But even with Berlusconi on trial accused of having sex with an underage prostitute at "Bunga Bunga" parties, many middle-aged women remain among his most loyal backers.
Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, tipped to win the election on Sunday and Monday, has accused Berlusconi of treating women like "inflatable dolls".
And, after announcing that women would make up 40 percent of his party's members of parliament, Bersani said last week: "I'll have to ask Berlusconi how many dolls he is going to bring in," apparently using a term that reflected what he considers his rival's sexist attitude.
But Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party turned it back on Bersani, tacitly accusing him of sexism.
"We will vote for Berlusconi, and we are tired of being considered second class women because of that," read the manifesto which was signed by women ranging from housewives to company managers, above photographs of three smiling women.
Another newspaper discovered that the photos, rather than being of actual women who signed the manifesto, were taken from the website of a Russian advertising company, prompting a PDL candidate to issue an assurance that: "The 200 signatures on the manifesto are all real women, in flesh and blood."
Earlier this week a 30-year-old woman went on TV to demand Berlusconi apologize to all Italian women after he made suggestive jokes about her when they shared the stage at a corporate event.
"Berlusconi has a taste for a joke, and he was not trying to offend anyone," his former education minister, Mariastella Gelmini, told a news conference to launch the manifesto when asked about the incident.
Two years ago, more than a million Italians joined street rallies in protest against Berlusconi's treatment of women while prime minister, as lurid details of his parties with showgirls were emerging.
Rosy Bindi, a centre-left politician who has often been the target of Berlusconi's jibes about her matronly appearance, told Reuters in 2011 that women would turn against the billionaire when Italy next went to the polls.
But a survey by polling institute SWG this month showed that housewives were Berlusconi's second-biggest fans after small business owners, with a quarter expected to vote for him.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)