Italian prime minister challenges election results

Posted in Europe | 12-Apr-06 | Author: Ian Fisher| Source: International Herald Tribune

Center-left leader Romano Prodi claimed victory in Italy's election early Tuesday, but Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservative forces contested the claim.
ROME Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday challenged his opponent's wisp of a victory in the divisive national elections, alternately suggesting that he wanted a recount or that he would be open to a German- style grand coalition government.

"We cannot recognize the outcome of a vote until there is a definitive clear judgment," Berlusconi said, after a rare span of public silence following two days of voting and a suspenseful night of election returns that showed a narrow victory for Romano Prodi and Prodi's center-left coalition.

"Until that day, no one can say they have won," he said.

Berlusconi's comments made clear that Italy was suspended in a state of political uncertainty. Early Tuesday, Prodi claimed victory - before final results were in, Berlusconi complained - and then near-complete election results showed that Prodi held thin majorities in both houses of Parliament.

But with about 38 million votes cast, Prodi's coalition led in the lower chamber of 630 members by a total of just 25,000 votes. In the upper chamber, the Senate, he led by only 2 seats out of 315. In each chamber, there were about 40,000 contested ballots, along with half a million blank ballots and another half a million that were nullified or contested during the counting.

Prodi's Olive coalition of center-left parties quickly issued a statement saying that Berlusconi was falsifying "reality" by refusing to concede defeat. And in three public statements since Tuesday morning, Prodi not only claimed victory but rejected any suggestion that the thin majority would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to govern.

"With this result we can govern the country with confidence," he told reporters in Rome on Tuesday afternoon. "Of course, we will need cooperation. But last night I said we would govern for all Italians, not just some of them."

But Berlusconi, stopping short of an official request for a recount, suggested that he and Prodi could discuss a broad coalition, like the one entered into by Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany after similarly narrow results in elections there earlier this year.

"I believe that maybe we should take an example from other European countries, like Germany, to see if we can't unify the forces of government to concordance," he said in his news conference in the seat of the government at Palazzo Chigi.

"I think this would be an act of humility on each side, but also a sign of realism," he said. "I don't think it would be good for the country to go ahead in a sort of civil war."

In the uncertainty that had hovered since the polls closed Monday afternoon, few political experts put much credence in the idea that Berlusconi, 69, Italy's richest man, a political maverick who created his own political party, would be willing to share power.

It was unclear whether Prodi would be willing to do so either. The two men share a long enmity, dating at least to 1996, when Prodi, 66, a low-key economist, beat Berlusconi in another race for prime minister.

Their politics could not be more different. Prodi holds a Euro-centric vision, favoring a strong state and skepticism toward Washington and the war in Iraq. Berlusconi rode into office as a businessman, favoring a smaller tax burden and a less intrusive state and he forged a strong friendship with President George W. Bush, sending 3,000 Italian troops to Iraq.

Earlier Tuesday, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, seemed to signal a desire for a quick and clear end to the elections, saying in a statement that he deemed the results showing the narrow margin for Prodi "orderly and correct."

While Berlusconi had not requested a recount, supporters suggested throughout the day that he probably would.

"Romano Prodi won absolutely nothing," said Sandro Biondi, a top leader in Forza Italia.

Rocco Buttligione, the nation's culture minister, whose party is allied to Berlusconi but does not always agree with him, said he believed any recount would be confined to the approximately 40,000 contested votes in each house, rather than being an expansive one involving many more ballots.

"The margin is small," he said in an interview Tuesday.

With Italian newspapers worrying over an Italy painfully divided by these elections, which were cast in many quarters as a referendum on Berlusconi and his tenure, Buttiglione said he hoped the crisis would be resolved quickly. The new Parliament, whatever the results, is expected to meet on April 28, when it will begin work on replacing the retiring Ciampi and a preliminary budget.

"At this moment the most important point is to say clearly: We have a responsible political class," Buttiglione said. "We shall take care that this country does not fall into a vacuum of political power. Foreign investors can be sure that we will make a good budget law at the end of the year according to European principles."