Italy election too close to call; projections give Berlusconi’s coalition slim lead |

Italy election too close to call; projections give Berlusconi’s coalition slim lead

ROME – Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving premier since World War II, was locked in a battle for power early Tuesday with center-left challenger Romano Prodi as vote projections from parliamentary election returns swung dramatically back and forth.More than nine hours after polls closed at 3 p.m. Monday, the head of the Nexus polling agency, which made projections from samples of actual votes cast, said the race was too close to call.”It all comes down to a handful of votes out of some 40 million voters,” Fabrizio Masia said. “We are unable to say who won.” He said the result of the Senate was hanging on Campania, a large southern region that includes Naples.After a campaign dominated by economic issues, earlier Nexus projections based on 98 percent of the vote gave Berlusconi’s center-right alliance 158 seats in the Senate compared to 151 for Prodi’s coalition. But with a margin of error of 1-3 percentage points and six seats chosen by Italians voting abroad unaccounted for, the Senate majority was far from assured.For the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, 89 percent of the voting sample gave Berlusconi’s alliance 49.8 to 49.7 percent for Prodi’s coalition. No seat breakdown was given.During his tenure, Berlusconi, a flamboyant billionaire, had strongly supported President Bush over Iraq despite fierce Italian opposition to the war. Prodi, an economist, 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the issue was largely deflated before the campaign began, when Berlusconi announced that Italy’s troops there would be withdrawn by year’s end.The projections giving Berlusconi a narrow lead in both houses came just hours after exit polls predicted a slim parliamentary victory for Prodi. With such uncertainty, politicians from both camps appealed for restraint until final results were in.”All day long we have called for caution and prudence,” said Sandro Bondi, a top official in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. “We have to wait for real results.””We are in the moment of the maximum uncertainty,” said Communist leader Fausto Bertinotti, a member of Prodi’s coalition.Speaking to supporters early Tuesday, Prodi said he did not know official election results and could not understand why they were taking so long.”We can’t figure out what’s happening,” he said. “We are full of confidence and we are waiting to see what will happen in the upcoming hours, wishing that we’ll have the results soon.”Voter turnout was about 84 percent in the elections Sunday and Monday.The Senate and lower chamber of parliament have equal powers, and any coalition would have to control both in order to form a government. Both center-left and center-right leaders have said if neither side controls both houses, new elections should be called.”If there’s a different majority between the Senate and the Chamber we need to go back to the polls,” leading center-left lawmaker Luciano Violante said.Even with a slim majority in parliament’s houses, a coalition would officially win. But it would find it extremely difficult to pass legislation.If parliament is split between the two coalitions, the president could try to name a government of technocrats at least until another election. 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.Berlusconi, a 69-year-old media mogul, 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.Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists.Italians were mainly preoccupied by economic worries. Berlusconi 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 hurl more insults at each other than comprehensive plans for turning around the economy.The premier’s critics have accused him of having used his coalition’s comfortable majority in parliament to push through laws to protect his business interests. He founded a business empire that expanded to include Italy’s main private TV networks, the Milan soccer team, as well as publishing, advertising and insurance interests.Berlusconi, in turn, depicted Prodi as a front man for communists in a campaign to damage democracy.Vail, Colorado

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