- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

From combined dispatches

ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since World War II, was locked in a battle for power today with his center-left challenger, as the country’s parliament apparently headed toward an irreconcilable split between coalitions.

Final results in the two-day vote that ended yesterday showed Romano Prodi’s center-left winning control in the lower house of parliament, with 49.8 percent of the vote compared to 49.7 percent won by Mr. Berlusconi’s conservatives. The winning coalition is automatically awarded 55 percent of the seats, according to a new electoral law.

The results showed Mr. Berlusconi’s conservatives held a one-seat lead in the Senate, although the ballots for six seats elected abroad were still to be counted.

“We have won, and now we have to start working to implement our program and unify the country,” said Mr. Prodi, speaking to his supporters.

“I am grateful to all of you because it has been a very difficult battle,” he said. “Until the very end, we were left in suspense; but in the end, victory has arrived.”

Mr. Berlusconi’s spokesman contested the victory claim, and Mr. Prodi’s allies conceded after his announcement that results in the Senate were still not complete.

Mr. Berlusconi, a 69-year-old media mogul, was battling to capture his third prime ministry with an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces and the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Mr. Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals and former and current communists.

During his five years at Palazzo Chigi, the prime minister’s office, Mr. Berlusconi has been a valued ally of the United States, though his deployment of Italian troops in Iraq has been unpopular at home.

Mr. Berlusconi earlier this year visited Washington for talks with President Bush and has repeatedly blamed the introduction of the euro, the European Union’s single currency, for Italy’s stagnant economy.

For hours after the vote ended yesterday, projections and returns swung dramatically back and forth between the two, and without the vote from abroad, the election’s outcome was still unclear. Voter turnout was about 84 percent.

The Senate and lower chamber of parliament have equal powers, and any coalition would have to control both in order to form a government. Both center-left and center-right leaders have said if neither side controls both houses, new elections should be called.

“If there’s a different majority between the Senate and the Chamber, we need to go back to the polls,” leading center-left lawmaker Luciano Violante said earlier in the day.

Even with a slim majority in parliament’s houses, a coalition would officially win. But it would find it extremely difficult to pass legislation.

If parliament is split between the two coalitions, the president could try to name a government of technocrats at least until another election. He could also seek to fashion a coalition of left and right, but considering the bitter divisions among Italy’s political parties, that seemed unlikely.

Mr. Prodi has led all opinion polls over the past two years by between 3.5 and five percentage points. Polls were banned in the last two weeks of the campaign, which ended with a fierce attack by Mr. Berlusconi on what he charges are plans by Mr. Prodi to increase taxes on storekeepers and the self-employed.

Mr. Berlusconi’s critics accused him of spending too much time passing laws to keep himself out of jail and defend his business interests.

Mr. Berlusconi delighted die-hard supporters but outraged opponents during the latter stages of the campaign, when he used a rude expletive to describe anyone voting for the Prodi camp and said he had learned personally that eight out of 10 women working for erotic telephone chat lines would vote for his alliance.

Mr. Prodi, a former European Commission president, supports Italy’s membership in the Atlantic Alliance, but is considered a “Euro-Gaullist” who would encourage Italian relations with France and Germany, rather than the United States.

• John Phillips in Rome contributed to this report.

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