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Prodi claims victory in Italy vote

Written by: Staff
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ROME, April 11 (Reuters) 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 ''scrupulous'' check of the count.

Twelve hours after polling stations closed, Prodi declared that his broad coalition had secured a majority in both houses of parliament and promised to unify Italy after a 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.

The centre-left said it was on course to win a one-seat majority in the upper house (Senate). In the lower house, official data showed Prodi had taken 49.81 percent of the vote to 49.74 percent for Berlusconi's House of Freedoms Alliance.

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.

However, Berlusconi's centre-right alliance contested Prodi's claim of triumph, saying it wanted to check reports that some half a million votes had been annulled.

''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.

VULNERABLE The close race revealed deep splits in Italy and raised the spectre of chronic political instability in the months ahead.

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.

MORE REUTERS DH BD0745

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