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Italy Still Unsure Who's in Charge

THE WORLD

A week after a close election, the nation awaits the final results. The prime minister was apparently ousted, but he refuses to yield.

April 18, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — A week after they turned out to vote in huge numbers, Italians on Monday were still waiting to find out who will lead a new government. The incumbent, Silvio Berlusconi, continued to refuse to accept defeat, despite official results showing a narrow loss.

The candidate who holds the lead said he was ready to get to work.

"Basta," center-left leader Romano Prodi, the likely prime minister-designate, said over the weekend. "Enough is enough. The country wants to breathe and move forward. I am doing the only thing that should be done: work toward a future government."

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and someone not accustomed to being told no, maintained that the election was too close to call. He said numerous irregularities demanded a partial recount.

The election was one of the closest on Italian record. However, the Interior Ministry, which oversees scrutiny of the ballots, revised its original estimate and said the number of disputed votes was too small to change the outcome of the election, held April 9 and 10.

This discomfiting stalemate has embarrassed Italy on the world stage and plunged the country into deep political uncertainty. Even assuming Prodi and his ramshackle coalition of centrist and leftist parties take office, their mandate will be narrow and their potential for internal conflict great. Added to that, the country appears more divided between right and left than at any time in recent history.

None other than the pope weighed in on the crisis Sunday during a traditional Easter message.

Referring to Italy's "situation of need and difficulty," Benedict XVI called for "harmony and authentic development for the good of all."

"In the particular moment that Italy has been living through in these months, may the risen Lord bring serenity to the national community and strengthen those who work to serve it," he said.

Italy is in urgent need of major economic reforms. Its once-robust economy has registered little or no growth through most of Berlusconi's five-year term and is staggering under enormous public debt.

Berlusconi has remained defiant.

"They have not won yet, and I think that from a moral point of view we are the winners," he told a television interviewer Friday before retiring to his estate on the island of Sardinia for the long holiday weekend.

"I am waiting with bated breath, like half of Italy ... for these blessed results to come out," Berlusconi said. "The numbers given by the Interior Ministry are provisional. We are still very hopeful."

Berlusconi's aides, meanwhile, have continued to press their case in comments to the Italian media. Senior spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti accused Prodi of "throwing salt on the wounds" of the Italian electorate by refusing to enter into negotiations with Berlusconi and his conservative coalition at this time of deep division.

And Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti said of the probable center-left rule: "Such a government will not last."

Prodi, a former economics professor known for his steady demeanor, remained unruffled. Speaking to reporters outside his home in Bologna on Sunday, he said he was confident he would prevail.

"The longer the torment, the sweeter the victory," he said.

He has rejected Berlusconi's calls for talks, saying negotiation is unnecessary because one side has won the election. Prodi's defenders maintain that his government would have a chance of sticking together because coalition members signed up to a detailed program before the vote. An earlier Prodi-led center-left government crumbled in 1998 over disputes between communist members and more moderate factions.

Some of Berlusconi's allies, meanwhile, have begun to abandon his challenge. Weary of the unseemliness of the dispute and the festering uncertainty, they say it makes more sense now to galvanize as a formidable opposition.

"We must get ready for the rematch," said Welfare Minister Roberto Maroni of the xenophobic Northern League, a component of Berlusconi's coalition.

Italy's high court will have to certify the final results of the election. The court could rule as early as today, after the conclusion of the holidays, which in Italy includes Easter Monday. Presumably, at that point Berlusconi would have to accept his fate.

By then too, analysts say, Berlusconi will have succeeded in raising sufficient questions about the legitimacy of Prodi's victory to seriously complicate his ability to govern.

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