Prodi confident as Italy starts recount

April 13, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ROME --As judges began recounting ballots yesterday in Italy's tight national elections, Romano Prodi said he expected that the provisional results giving his center-left coalition a narrow victory would stand and that he would replace Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister.

"I don't have any fear of a reversal of the results - it is an absolutely tranquil victory," Prodi, looking slightly weary but exhibiting his trademark calm, said at his first major news conference since two days of voting ended Monday.

Since then, Italian politics lapsed into a state of suspended animation, as Berlusconi, who waged an all-out campaign to stay in office, refused to concede defeat, saying the results were so close they required a recount. Of 38 million ballots cast, only 25,000 votes separated the two coalitions in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

Yesterday, the Italian Interior Ministry said a re-examination had begun on about 80,000 disputed ballots, the first step toward a final result that may soon clarify a troubling moment of uncertainty in the country.

Prodi, 66, himself a former prime minister, sought to project an air of victory and command, speaking on Italian television and radio and before the foreign news media to assure both Italians and the world that there was little to worry about. With smiles and looks of bafflement, he ridiculed Berlusconi's refusal to accept the first count and concede defeat.

"I don't know what Berlusconi is talking about," he said at the news conference for the foreign press. "He was in control of everything in this election," because the Berlusconi government oversaw the elections and ballot counting.

"He doesn't trust in himself," Prodi said jokingly at another point. "It's a crisis of identity."

Berlusconi, who has only appeared in public once since the voting ended, remained out of sight yesterday, And despite Prodi's reassurances, many questions remained about how soon a new government could be formed and, with so small an apparent majority, how effectively Prodi would be able to govern.

Prodi made his comments after he met yesterday with President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who said he would leave to his successor the task of asking Prodi to form a government.

Ciampi's seven-year term ends next month, and while the 85- year-old president could have asked Prodi to form a government as soon as the new Parliament convened, political analysts suggested that the narrow results prompted him to defer the decision.

The new Parliament will meet for the first time April 28, but it will not act on a new president - which could be Ciampi again - until the second week in May. In the news conference, Prodi played down the delay, noting it usually takes several weeks for a new government to be put in place.

In the lower house, according to the preliminary count, the vote split 49.8 percent for Prodi and his center-left alliance and 49.7 percent for Berlusconi and his center-right alliance. But a new electoral law aimed at making it easier for the victor to govern awarded 348 seats to Prodi and 281 to Berlusconi.

In the Senate, the men were separated by two seats, with 158 for Prodi and 156 for Berlusconi.

For any election, the results are automatically scrutinized by judges. A government official said that in this case, with the results so close, that scrutiny would be especially tight.

Those judges then submit their report to a branch of the Italian Supreme Court, which certifies the results. That certification is expected in the next several days, possibly delayed into early next week because of the Easter holiday. A final approval of the results is given by the incoming Parliament.

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