YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Italy Opposition Takes Both Houses

Official returns show small margins of victory for the center-left. But Berlusconi won't concede, citing alleged voting irregularities.

April 12, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — The center-left coalition led by economist Romano Prodi narrowly won both houses of the Italian Parliament in hotly contested national elections, official tallies showed Tuesday, but Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to concede defeat.

Prodi and his coalition won by margins so minuscule that questions remain about whether the center-left will have the political capital to govern and enact economic reforms many see as crucial.

The bruising election also left Italy more divided than ever, "split in two," as Italian newspaper headlines blared Tuesday morning.

Prodi, a former university professor and professional bureaucrat, said he was confident his coalition could form an effective government.

"My government will be politically and technically strong," he said at a news conference. "We can govern for five years" -- a full mandate -- "and will govern also for those who did not vote for us."

But Berlusconi was having none of it.

Leaders of his conservative coalition suggested that they would demand a recount of votes for the lower house of Parliament; only 25,000 ballots -- out of more than 38 million cast -- separate the two sides: a margin of less than one-tenth of 1%.

"No one now can say they have won," Berlusconi, 69, said at a news conference Tuesday evening, ending a 48-hour self-imposed silence since showing up Sunday at a polling place with his 95-year-old mother to vote.

"We will not hesitate to recognize the political victory for our adversaries," Berlusconi said, "but only after the necessary legal verification procedures have been completed."

Among other steps, the election results, which the Interior Ministry released Tuesday, must be approved by the Supreme Court, and parliamentary committees would be charged with hearing any formal challenges.

Berlusconi and his associates listed a series of what they said were possible irregularities, including more than 1 million spoiled or blank ballots and hitches in the transmission of results from outlying villages to a central tabulation office in Rome.

The normally irrepressible Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon whom even friends call a megalomaniac, seemed subdued Tuesday. It was not clear how far he would push his rejection of Prodi's victory.

He suggested an alternative: establishing a so-called grand coalition, done in some parliamentary systems when no faction has won a majority and the opposing sides come together to form a government and end political stalemate.

"I don't think it would be good for the country to go ahead in a sort of civil war," Berlusconi said.

Prodi's coalition responded that Berlusconi was "falsifying reality" and dismissed his contentions.

Some analysts suggested that Berlusconi's challenge was a bluff.

"It is the last gasp of someone trying to do anything he can to delay the end," said James Walston, a political scientist at Rome's American University.

In addition to the tabulation for the House of Deputies, the Interior Ministry also released official numbers for the Senate, where the results rested with the counting of votes cast by overseas Italians who were choosing six seats. Four of the six went to Prodi's faction and two to Berlusconi, giving the center-left a two-seat advantage.

Prodi, 66, used his appearance before journalists earlier Tuesday to sketch in broad terms the agenda of his likely government. He said he would focus on Europe, in contrast to Berlusconi's emphasis on the United States, and attempt to unify the country and repair damage done by months of vitriolic political squabbling.

"We leave behind the sourness of a long and difficult electoral campaign," he said. "We need to start immediately to repair the tears that were produced in the country."

Prodi has said he plans to reinstate an inheritance tax for the richest citizens and cut payroll taxes in an effort to revive business and growth.

If Berlusconi and his allies succeed in forcing a recount, the final, certified results of the vote will not be known for weeks. The prospect of such uncertainty had some Italians comparing the dispute to the contested conclusion of the 2000 U.S. election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

The back-and-forth Tuesday between Prodi and Berlusconi did little to assuage fears of political paralysis.

"Those who seek, against all odds, to reason, know that it will be much more difficult to form a government that governs, and above all, holds Italy together," editorialized Paolo Franchi of Italy's leading Corriere della Sera newspaper. "Or, rather, the two Italys."

Los Angeles Times Articles