- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

ROME — Italian center-left leader Romano Prodi defeated Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi yesterday after garnering a narrow majority in both houses of Parliament, official results showed.

The conservative prime minister declined to concede that Mr. Prodi had won, insinuating that widespread fraud was involved, but commentators said the meteoric political career of Italy’s richest man is all but over.

The Interior Ministry said Mr. Prodi’s Union bloc grouping Roman Catholics, social democrats, environmentalist Greens and hard-line communists won 158 seats in the Senate, the upper house, against 156 seats for the flamboyant Forza Italia party leader’s Freedom Alliance bloc containing the “post-Fascist” National Alliance party made up of former Blackshirts and the devolutionist Northern League.

The count was completed almost 28 hours after the polls closed. The center-left already had won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house. Mr. Prodi’s coalition defeated the prime minister in the battle for the Chamber of Deputies by 25,000 votes, but ironically the Union will receive 340 out of the 630 seats under the terms of a change in electoral law that Mr. Berlusconi’s government introduced earlier this year in a last-ditch effort to help them return to power.

Mr. Prodi, 66, shrugged off suggestions his coalition would be too weak to last more than a few months, saying previous governments had been weaker. He declared his coalition “politically and technically strong,” pledged to have “constructive relations” with the United States and dismissed a demand by Mr. Berlusconi for a recount of votes.

“Today we turn a page,” said Mr. Prodi, an economist and former president of the European Commission.

Mr. Berlusconi, 69, told a press conference that “no one can claim victory at this point.” The results have to be approved by Italy’s high court to be valid. However, Mr. Berlusconi also called for parties from across the spectrum to form a “grand coalition,” which opposition leaders said was a tacit acknowledgment that he had lost.

Before Mr. Berlusconi spoke, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi issued a statement praising the “orderly and correct” voting process. The respected head of state’s remarks evidently were intended to discourage a messy battle over the result, commentators said.

France and Luxembourg sent congratulations to Mr. Prodi, though the Bush administration, a longtime ally of Mr. Berlusconi, stopped short of commenting on the elections while he was refusing to concede defeat, diplomatic sources said.

Mr. Berlusconi fought a combative election campaign to try to recover popularity that has been flagging for two years, mainly because of the stagnant nature of the Italian economy. The prime minister pledged to abolish local government tax on private homes and accused Mr. Prodi of planning to increase taxes on small businesses, the lifeblood of the Italian economy.

The prime minister’s wild promises and outrageous tactics to attract attention, including comparing himself to Napoleon and Jesus Christ and describing opposition voters with vulgarities, alienated many former supporters, political analysts said.

In a bizarre twist yesterday, Mr. Prodi received an unexpected boost when police arrested Bernardo Provenzano, the boss of bosses of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, who had been on the run for 40 years. In the past, Mr. Berlusconi was accused of having reached an accommodation with the Sicilian Mafia that helped him when he burst onto the political scene in 1992.

Mr. Berlusconi said that “we will not hesitate to recognize the political victory of our adversaries, but only after the votes have been checked legally.”

The Interior Ministry, which presided over the count, said 1.1 million votes were not taken into consideration for the Chamber of Deputies because they had been spoiled or left blank.



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