Italy heads toward split parliament
The Italian elections split the nation in half, with a bitterly contested race failing to produce a clear winner in parliament today, more than 12 hours after polls closed, and threatening a new season of political instability.
Near-final returns today showed Premier Silvio Berlusconi's conservatives holding a razor-thin lead in the Senate and Romano Prodi's centre-left winning the lower house by the smallest of margins.
Berlusconi's conservative allies held a one-seat advantage in the Senate, although the results for six seats elected by Italians abroad were still being counted this morning.
The Senate is made up of 315 elected lawmakers. There also are seven senators appointed for life, but they do not traditionally take sides.
Final results in the lower house showed Prodi's centre-left coalition winning control in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, with 49.8 percent of the vote compared with 49.7 percent for Berlusconi's conservatives. The winning coalition is automatically awarded 55 percent of the seats — 340 — according to a new electoral law.
A victory claim by Prodi was immediately contested by Berlusconi's forces.
"We have won, and now we have to start working to implement our program and unify the country," a jubilant Prodi said speaking to his supporters just before 3am.
"I am grateful to all of you because it has been a very difficult battle," Prodi said. "Until the very end we were left in suspense, but in the end victory has arrived."
Later, some of Prodi's supporters, waving flags, moved to Berlusconi's nearby residence and shouted slogans under the premier's windows.
Berlusconi's spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti contested the centre-left victory claim and called for a vote recount in the lower house, noting that the difference in the Chamber amounted to less than 25,000 votes.
"Such a narrow difference demands that there be a careful verification of the vote count," he said.
For hours after the vote ended yesterday, projections and returns swung dramatically back and forth between the two coalitions, and without the vote from Italians living abroad, the election's outcome remained 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 to form a government. Some centre-left and centre-right leaders have said that if neither side controls both houses, new elections should be called.
Even if one coalition controls both chambers, it would find it extremely difficult to pass legislation with such a slim majority, returning Italy to instability after Berlusconi's five years in power.
If parliament is split between the two coalitions, the president could try to name a government of technocrats at least until another election can be held. 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.
Still, politicians said that a possible solution to a legislative deadlock might be a "grand-coalition" government to handle urgent economic matters and the election of a new president — whose mandate expires in mid-May — with new parliamentary elections later in the year.
"We have to immediately send a message to the markets, to whomever wants to invest in Italy that the country is not going to fall apart," said Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione.
Berlusconi, a 69-year-old media mogul who is Italy's longest serving premier since World War II, was battling to capture his third premiership 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.
The 66-year-old Prodi, a former premier and EU chief, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, Communists and former Communists.
Italians were mainly preoccupied with finances. Berlusconi, a billionaire businessman whose empire includes TV networks, insurance and real estate, failed to jump start a flat economy during his tenure, but promised to abolish a homeowner's property tax. Prodi said he would revive an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi, but only for the richest; he also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.
Still, the candidates seemed to spend more time insulting each other than discussing comprehensive plans to turn around the economy.
During his tenure, Berlusconi, had strongly supported US President George W Bush over Iraq despite fierce Italian opposition to the war. Prodi said he would bring troops home as soon as possible, security conditions permitting. But the issue was largely deflated before the campaign began when Berlusconi announced that Italy's troops there would be withdrawn by year's end. -AP