Italy's Berlusconi disputes Prodi victory claim
ROME, Apr 11: Centre-left leader Romano Prodi claimed a knife-edge victory in Italy's general election today, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's allies disputed the result and demanded a thorough review of the count.
Twelve hours after polling stations closed, Prodi declared that his coalition had secured a majority in both houses of parliament and promised to unify Italy after a highly divisive, acrimonious election campaign.
''We have won,'' Prodi told flag-waving supporters who had waited until the early hours in a Rome square as the count ebbed and flowed in the closest election in modern Italian history.
Centre-right politicians said the vote was still too close to call with up to half a million ballots reportedly spoilt and counting in the upper house Senate not yet complete.
''This is intolerable. What is this? A coup? It reminds me of South America. Auto proclamation (of victory) is constitutionally illegitimate,'' said Industry Minister Claudio Scajola, a member of Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party.
The centre-left said it was on course to win at least a one-seat majority in the upper house (Senate), although definitive results will not be known until later in the day.
If confirmed, such a majority would prove extremely hard to manage and could usher in chronic political instability in a country where governments have an average life span of one year.
In the lower house, official data showed Prodi had taken 49.81 percent of the vote to 49.74 per cent for Berlusconi.
Under Italy's new electoral system, the ballot winners are automatically granted 340 of the lower house's 630 seats no matter how small their margin of victory in the popular vote, with the runners up getting some 277 seats.
Prodi's winning margin was around 25,224 votes, a tiny fraction of Italy's 47 million eligible electors.
A re-evaluation of the spoilt ballots could unleash political chaos in Italy, evoking the 2000 U.S. presidential election, which ended in a bitter recount battle in Florida.
Prodi's centre-left bloc, which stretches from Roman Catholic centrists to committed communists, had expected a comfortable victory in the election, tapping into voter unhappiness over the stagnant economy and rising cost of living.
Exit polls yesterday suggested Prodi had secured a clear cut win, but as the count progressed, Berlusconi closed the gap.
Berlusconi had trailed in the opinion polls for two years, but he fought an abrasive campaign, wrong-footing Prodi in the final week by promising to abolish an unpopular property tax.
The close result revealed deep splits at the heart of Italian society and raised doubts over whether the eventual winner would be able to govern effectively. Italy's two houses of parliament duplicate each other's functions and a government needs the support of both to take office and to pass laws.
A one-seat majority in the Senate would leave a prime minister vulnerable to the demands of junior partners and would turn every vote into an effective confidence motion. ''We were on a razor's edge, but in the end victory was ours and now it is time to turn the page,'' said Prodi, who triumphed in a 1996 general election but only survived two years in office before being ousted by disgruntled communist allies.
While some of his supporters celebrated the wafer-thin majority, others trailed away looking disconsolate.
''I don't understand why they are all dancing and jumping up and down. This isn't a victory,'' said Luigi Esposito, a centre-left voter in his 30s.
If Prodi does take office, he will inherit the task of cutting the world's third largest national debt pile while trying to breathe new life into an economy that grew an average of 0.6 percent a year under Berlusconi.
He has pledged to cut labour taxes, provide bigger handouts for families with children, reintroduce an inheritance tax, scrap plans to raise the age of retirement to 60 and launch a crackdown on tax evasion.
On foreign policy, Prodi has vowed a swift withdrawal of Italian troops sent to Iraq by Berlusconi, who was one of U.S. President George W. Bush's closest allies in Europe.
The next government is not expected to take office for at least a month, with Berlusconi set to stay on in a caretaker capacity until parliament nominates a successor to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, whose mandate expires in May.
The president must name the new prime minister and Ciampi says he wants to leave the task to his successor.