Prodi claims victory in Italian vote drama
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Prodi claims victory in Italian vote drama

The opposition leader Romano Prodi claimed he had ousted Silvio Berlusconi in an Italian election cliff-hanger.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2006 08:38 IST

The opposition leader Romano Prodi claimed on Tuesday he had ousted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in an Italian election cliff-hanger.

But a final result was still awaited.

"We have won," Prodi told an ecstatic crowd outside the headquarters of his centre-left Union coalition in central Rome after a vitriolic campaign laden with insults and focussed on the near-stagnant economy.

"We will always be united. We will govern for five years," said the 66-year-old economist, who led a steady, sober campaign to end Berlusconi's flamboyant five-year reign.

"Today, we have turned a page," he said.

Official results showed Prodi's alliance had indeed won the lower house Chamber of Deputies by a razor thin margin.

But the outcome of the race for the equally powerful Senate was undecided.

A final count for the lower house vote showed Prodi's party won 49.8 per cent of the ballot compared to 49.7 per cent for Berlusconi's centre-right House of Freedoms coalition.

The gap was just 25,224 votes.

Under new elections rules introduced six months ago, however, the winner is automatically awarded a minimum 340 of the 630 seats in the lower house, granting it a commanding majority.

Prodi's sweeping claim of a majority in both houses of parliament irked the centre-right, and Berlusconi's spokesman Paolo Bonaiuti immediately contested the statement.

He said the House of Freedoms coalition had won some 350,000 votes more than the opposition in the elections for the upper house, where there is no official result.

According to a near complete count, Berlusconi -- the longest serving Italian prime minister since World War II -- has so far secured 155 of the 315 Senate seats compared to 154 for Prodi.

But six Senate seats allocated to Italians abroad have yet to be counted, and early indications indicated Prodi may get four of them -- enough to secure a slender majority there, too.

The winning side must control both the lower and upper houses to be able to govern effectively and avoid legislative deadlock.

Experts say a divided parliament could result in several possibilities, including a German-style "grand coalition," a technocrat government, or even fresh elections.

On the streets, the uncertainty had left thousands of Prodi supporters in suspense.

"We'll stay here until we're sure that Berlusconi has been sent home," said Gianluca Vecchio, one of several thousand people crowded into a central Roman piazza for what was to have been a victory celebration.

Prodi's office had postponed his expected victory address as projections for the election first swung in his direction, then lurched in favour of the prime minister, and finally appeared to switch back to Prodi.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, returned to Rome from his mansion in Arcore, outside Milan, in the afternoon, but has so far refrained from making any comment.

The usually reserved Prodi -- who unseated Berlusconi in the 1996 election -- said on early Monday he was "confident, very confident" of maintaining his hex on the media magnate.

Berlusconi hoped to swing the vote by promising at the last minute to abolish a council tax on home owners.

Prodi pledged to revive an inheritance tax, but after pressure from the centre-right clarified that this would only be for the rich.

He also promised to cut taxes on employers to reduce the cost of labour.

Most of all, the campaign was characterised by insults, notably Berlusconi's use of a vulgar term -- "coglione," a slang word for testicles used to infer someone is an idiot -- to describe centre-left voters.

His jibe backfired, and ever since the opposition supporters have hit back with the slogan "I'm a coglione" sprouting up everywhere from posters to T-shirts.

First Published: Apr 11, 2006 08:38 IST