Italian election isn't likely to change


ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi's fight to remain prime minister appeared all but over yesterday after the Interior Ministry announced a far smaller number of contested ballots in this week's narrow elections.

The reduced number was not nearly enough to change provisional results giving the victory to his challenger, Romano Prodi. Still, the famously pugnacious Berlusconi, in office for the past five years, did not appear ready to concede defeat.

"We will go forward," he told a crowd of reporters and supporters, as well as a few who want to see him leave power in Italy, as he left his palace in Rome to spend the Easter holiday in his home city of Milan.

"We will resist," he added with a huge smile.

Berlusconi's refusal to concede defeat has infuriated his opponents and even worried some allies who view it as a challenge not only to the very close results, but also as bordering on a challenge to Italian democracy.

After the news of the smaller number of contested ballots, his opponents said they hoped he would soon give up and end the political uncertainty that has hovered since the polls closed Monday.

"As was obvious, the check hasn't brought anything new," said Prodi, 66, a former prime minister, referring to an examination of the ballots before the results are certified. "Our victory is confirmed," he told reporters near his home in Bologna.

The largest center-left party, the Democrats of the Left, released a statement saying: "We were right. The bluff of Berlusconi and Forza Italia is definitively exposed by their own Ministry of the Interior." Forza Italia is Berlusconi's political party.

This week, the ministry announced that there were 82,850 contested ballots in both houses of Parliament - a number that left some room for Berlusconi's claim that he won.

In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, the two men were separated by roughly 25,000 votes, and the initial interior numbers showed 43,028 contested ballots.

But yesterday, the Interior Ministry said the number of disputed ballots in the Chamber of Deputies was 2,131 - a number that could not give a victory to Berlusconi. In the upper house, the Senate, the number was 3,135 - a number that also could not change Prodi's provisional victory.

A statement by the ministry blamed an unexplained "material error" for the incorrect original numbers.

The contested ballots are being examined by a group of judges, who will report their findings to Italy's highest court. The court will then announce the results, expected in the next few days. Legal experts say Berlusconi has no constitutional recourse until after the Parliament is seated April 28 and votes to make the election results official.

But in recent days, Berlusconi has reportedly discussed issuing an edict calling for a far broader recount of votes. Alleging "so much fraud" in these elections, Berlusconi has said he wanted a recount of the million ballots in both houses that were blank or disqualified.

The nation's president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has reportedly voiced his opposition to such an unusual step.

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