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11 April 2006

ITALIAN ELECTION: Testicles win by a pubic hair!

Tuesday 11 April 2006 05:45 AM USA ET

Specter of paralysis
hangs over Italy
after vote

by Philip Pullella and Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) -- Romano Prodi's center-left claimed victory in Italy's election on Tuesday but his tiny margin raised the Specter of political paralysis and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's allies demanded a review.

"Italy is split," said Il Riformista newspaper.

The center-left won in the lower house and Sky Italia TV projected that it would have a majority of one or two seats in the upper house Senate thanks to votes of Italians abroad that were still being counted.

But the victory margin was so slim that the center-right contested it and markets worried that Prodi would have a hard time enacting reforms, cutting Italy's debt or trimming its deficit.

"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," Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione said.

Milan's stock market fell more than 1 percent over concern that political uncertainty could block economic reforms and make it impossible to trim Italy's debt pile.

The center-right had no doubt about its victory. Asked if he would be prime minister, Prodi told reporters: "Having won the election, it is right, logical and it is my duty."

But earlier on Tuesday he acknowledged that his win was wafer-thin, saying: "The country is divided."

In the lower house Chamber of Deputies Prodi's bloc had taken about 49.80 percent of the vote compared with 49.73 percent for Berlusconi. The winning margin was around 25,000 votes, a tiny fraction of the 47 million eligible electors.

"Divided country", "Neck-and-Neck" and "Split down the Middle" were the headlines used in most mainstream newspapers to describe the vote, the closest election in modern history.

Projections by Sky Italia TV said the center-left was on course to have a one or two seat majority in the upper house after the counting of about a million votes from Italians abroad was completed later in the day.

Italians abroad will assign six Senate seats and the center-left also said they expected to take four and possibly five.


But even with a slim majority in the Senate, such an alliance would prove extremely hard to manage. Commentators and frustrated ordinary Italians feared it could usher in chronic political instability.

"Both sides were at a pretty low standard ... I think we'll have a government that lasts six months and then parliament will fall apart and we will have to vote again," said Pietro Bianchi, a Milan banker in his 30s.

Under Italy's new electoral system, the ballot winners are automatically granted 340 of the lower house's 630 seats no matter how small their margin of victory in the popular vote, with the runners-up getting some 277 seats.

Center-right politicians asked for checks on up to half a million spoilt ballots that had been declared null and void.

"Neither side reached 50 percent (in the lower house) and the margin is under 25,000 votes. Such a tiny difference necessitates a scrupulous checking of the counting and tally sheets," Paolo Bonaiuti, Berlusconi's right-hand man, told reporters in the pre-dawn hours.

The prospect of a partial recount and possible lawsuits could delay a definitive verdict and compound political uncertainty. Some commentators evoked the 2000 U.S. presidential election, which ended in a bitter recount battle in Florida.

Berlusconi himself has not yet commented on the results.

Prodi's center-left bloc, which stretches from Roman Catholic centrists to committed communists, had expected a comfortable victory in the election, tapping into voter unhappiness over the stagnant economy and rising cost of living.

Exit polls on Monday suggested Prodi had secured a clear win, but as the count progressed, Berlusconi closed the gap.

Berlusconi had trailed in the opinion polls, but he fought an abrasive campaign, wrong-footing Prodi in the final week by promising to abolish an unpopular property tax.

The next government is not expected to take office for at least a month.

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Robin Pomeroy, Phil Stewart and Nelson Graves)

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.


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