Italian court affirms challenger's victory


ROME -- One by one, the doors were shutting yesterday on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's campaign to resist defeat in national elections.

Italy's highest court, ruling on a partial recount of ballots cast 10 days ago, confirmed yesterday that the center-left coalition led by economist Romano Prodi defeated Berlusconi's conservative alliance by a tiny margin.

"The election is finally over," Prodi said during a news conference at his headquarters in Rome's historic center. "Italians no longer have any doubts about our triumph."

It was the not the first time Prodi had claimed victory, but Berlusconi has alleged broad irregularities and refused to concede defeat. He did not issue an immediate response to the ruling, and at least one aide said he would continue to fight.

However, some of the prime minister's allies were ready to move on. One party in his coalition, the Union of Christian Democrats, accepted the court's ruling and congratulated Prodi on his victory. The far-right Northern League, another member of the coalition, also conceded defeat, though it said Prodi had won by such a small margin that it would be virtually impossible for him to govern.

Berlusconi was reported to be holed up in his private palazzo with senior members of his Forza Italia (Go Italy) Party, where the conversation had turned to ways to oppose a Prodi government at each turn and continually call its legitimacy into question.

The Court of Cassation verified the recount and determined that Prodi's coalition won by 24,755 votes in the lower parliamentary Chamber of Deputies - a margin of less than one-tenth of 1 percent. The margin was about 500 votes closer than results certified last week by the Interior Ministry. Nearly 38 million votes were cast.

Several thousand votes remain contested in the race for Senate, but they are not considered enough to change an outcome that gave Prodi a two-seat advantage there.

Berlusconi may mount additional challenges to the election results. But his room to maneuver was diminishing, and he would have to attack the outcome on a tedious, piecemeal basis once the new Parliament is seated this month.

"In a normal democracy, votes are counted and confirmed, and he who loses congratulates the other," former Sen. Enrico Morando of the Democratic Left Party, a member of the Prodi coalition, told Italian television. "But I don't know what will happen."

A member of the prime minister's coalition, Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, suggested that Berlusconi would continue to fight. Tremonti told reporters that additional "checks" were necessary into what he described as major anomalies.

But Prodi seemed to see light at the end of the electoral tunnel.

"We must press ahead with our efforts to create a strong government," he said, while acknowledging an urgent need to heal the rifts in Italian society exposed by the close vote.

Some of those divisions will be felt within Prodi's coalition, where Communist Party members were at odds with a number of his planned free-market changes. But Prodi has been holding daily meetings with constituents, including labor unions yesterday, to give at least the appearance of decisive and promising leadership.

Even if Berlusconi were to concede, it is unlikely that a new government will be formed before late next month.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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