Berlusconi Says He Will Contest Vote
By IAN FISHER
Published: April 12, 2006
ROME, April 11 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday challenged his
opponent's wisp of a victory in the divisive national elections, alternately
suggesting a recount, or a German-style grand coalition government.
Although final results announced Tuesday showed his center-left opponent,
Romano Prodi, with a thin lead in both houses of Parliament, Mr. Berlusconi
contended that the vote was so close that there was ample room for error.
"We cannot recognize the outcome of a vote until there is a definitive,
clear judgment," he said, refusing to concede defeat after two days of
voting on Sunday and Monday and a suspenseful night of returns that whipped
back and forth before settling finally on Mr. Prodi. "Until that day, no one
can say they have won."
Mr. Berlusconi's comments locked Italy into a state of political
uncertainty, disenchanted with him and his failure to improve the economy,
but apparently worried that Mr. Prodi, an old establishment face, might do
The political class lamented results that showed Italy split between left
and right, south and north and traditional versus maverick politics, giving
no clear mandate to either leader.
With some 38 million votes cast, Mr. Prodi's coalition led in the Chamber of
Deputies, the lower house of 630 members, by just 25,000 votes. In the upper
chamber, the Senate, he led by only 2 seats of 315. In each chamber, there
were still some 40,000 contested ballots, plus half a million blank ballots
and another half a million that were nullified or contested during the
Any challenge to the results would have to be acted on by parliamentary
election committees, with the final results certified by the courts.
But President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, perhaps Italy's most respected
politician, signaled a desire for a quick and clear solution, saying he
deemed the results showing Mr. Prodi's victory "orderly and correct."
Mr. Prodi, 66, a low-key economist and former prime minister, dismissed
widespread suggestions that he was left with so small a majority that it
would be difficult if not impossible for him to govern. He predicted, in
fact, a term that would last its full five years.
"With this result we can govern the country with confidence," he told
reporters in Rome in the early afternoon. "Of course, we will need
cooperation. But last night I said we would govern for all Italians, not
just some of them."
In the sort of surprise that he is known for, Mr. Berlusconi emerged from a
day of unaccustomed silence to suggest that he and Mr. Prodi could discuss a
broad coalition, like the one entered into by Chancellor Angela Merkel in
Germany and her opposition after similarly narrow results in elections there
"I believe that maybe we should take an example from other European
countries, like Germany, to see if we can't unify the forces of government,"
he said at his news conference. "I think this would be an act of humility on
each side, but also a sign of realism. I don't think it would be good for
the country to go ahead in a sort of civil war."
In the uncertainty that has hovered since the polls closed, few political
experts put much credence in the idea that Mr. Berlusconi, 69, who built a
billionaire's fortune and his political party from nothing, would be willing
to share power.
Mr. Prodi ruled out the possibility immediately.
"Regarding the grand coalition, we went before voters with a precise
coalition, and the electoral law assigned us a number of lawmakers in the
Chamber and in the Senate that allows us to govern," he told reporters this
More than the heat and bitter feelings of the election seem to make a grand
coalition unlikely. The two men share a long enmity, dating from at least
1996, when Mr. Prodi beat Mr. Berlusconi in another race for prime minister.
Beyond the personal, their politics could not be more different:
Mr. Prodi holds a Eurocentric vision, favoring a strong state and skepticism
toward Washington and the war in Iraq.
Mr. Berlusconi rode into office in May 2001 as a business executive favoring
a smaller tax burden and a less intrusive state. He forged a strong
friendship with President Bush, sending 3,000 troops to Iraq.
The prospect of a recount raised the possibility of a prolonged period of
uncertainty, with many newspaper commentators worrying that Italy could see
a repeat of the contested American election in 2000, which ended in Mr.
Bush's victory and left deep political divides.
"Italy is split in two, but in a strange way, we learned something about
America" in this election, said Beppe Severgnini , a prominent newspaper
columnist who wrote a book about Italy's national character, "La Bella
Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind," which is to be published in the
United States in August by Random House.
While Mr. Berlusconi said nothing until his news conference on Tuesday
evening, supporters suggested throughout the day that he probably would ask
for a recount.
"Romano Prodi won absolutely nothing," said Sandro Biondi, a leader in Forza
Italia, Mr. Berlusconi's party.
Rocco Buttiglione, the culture minister, whose party is allied with Mr.
Berlusconi but does not always agree with him, said he believed that any
recount would be confined to the roughly 40,000 contested votes in each
house, rather than an expansive one involving many more ballots.
"The margin is so small," he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Mr. Buttiglione said he hoped the crisis would be resolved quickly. The new
Parliament, whatever the final results, is expected to meet on April 28,
when it will begin work on replacing President Ciampi, who is retiring, and
a preliminary budget.
"At this moment the most important point is to say clearly: We have a
responsible political class," Mr. Buttiglione said. "We shall take care that
this country does not fall into a vacuum of political power."
The final results, released late Tuesday, showed Mr. Prodi winning the lower
house with 49.8 percent of the votes, compared to Mr. Berlusconi's 49.7.
Because a new election law automatically gives a larger majority of seats to
the victor to make it easier to pass legislation the distribution was
348 seats for Mr. Prodi and his allies and 281 for Mr. Berlusconi and his
In the upper house, Mr. Prodi and his allies won 158 seats to Mr.
Amid the bitterness and confusion, many Italians lamented that neither side
won a more convincing victory. The election was a referendum on Mr.
Berlusconi, who many voters believe failed to make good on promises to
improve Italy's lagging economy.
Pre-election polls showed Mr. Berlusconi trailing as much as 5 percent
behind Mr. Prodi's coalition and some analysts said Mr. Prodi's failure to
do better could doom him politically.
Even many left-leaning commentators said he ran a lackluster campaign, and
they criticized his talk about bringing back an inheritance tax, if only for
the wealthy, at a time when Mr. Berlusconi was painting the left as the
party of higher taxes.
More practically, his failure to win more seats, many experts said, raised
the real possibility that his government would not last long.
"The Berlusconi era is finished," said Marcello Veneziani, a conservative
political commentator. "But I have the impression that the Prodi era is
Mr. Severgnini also said that for as much as Italians complained about Mr.
Berlusconi his frequent public gaffes, his legal troubles and his close
friendship with Mr. Bush there was something in him that still appealed to
a large number of Italians. His party, in the end, won about 24 percent of
the vote, more than any other single party.
"Italians are basically conservative people," said Mr. Severgnini , the
columnist. "And Berlusconi was a genius.
"On one hand, he promised to be the new man, exciting. But there was a wink.
He said: 'Don't worry, nothing is going to change. You are not going to pay
taxes.' So he reassured the conservative inner soul of Italy."