Italy's Prodi, Berlusconi in Close Race

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Romano Prodi, leader of Italy's center-left party, is in a close race with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy's general election. Some exit polls have predicted that Prodi will win a majority in both houses of parliament.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The result of Italy's general election is still unknown. Some analysts suggest that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might win a surprise victory and retain power. Others predict that the center-left challenger, Romano Prodi, will just scrape into power.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now from Rome and, Sylvia, what can you tell us about the results at this point?


Well, at this moment, it appears that there's a virtual tie. In Italy, there's no direct election of the Prime Minister and the winning coalition must control both houses of Parliament. What adds to the confusion is that there's a new electoral law Berlusconi pushed through Parliament at the end of the legislature that is basically designed to ensure that whoever wins has a very small majority. So if one coalition wins the lower house and the other side wins the senate, there'll be a virtual paralysis and, perhaps, the country will have to go to another round of elections.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit about these two men, who, one of them will be prime minister, we assume. Berlusconi and Romano Prodi, these are two larger-than-life figures in Europe.

POGGIOLI: Well, a lot is known about Berlusconi, the self-made man who started as a crooner on Mediterranean cruises and then became a media tycoon and Italy's richest man. His facelift and hair transplant, his outrageous comments add to his flamboyant image. And he has certainly left a mark on Italian society. Some say that, you know, through his TV networks, with their lowbrow reality and variety shows and with scantily dressed women from morning to night, he has shaped his own loyal electorate. Berlusconi's social philosophy was summed up in a, this phrase he said last week, when he accused the center-left of wanting to put on the same level the son of a laborer and the son of a professional.

Now Prodi is really the antithesis of Berlusconi. He's mild mannered, he's professorial. He's been described as a country priest. His tenure --

SIEGEL: He's literally professorial. He was an economics professor.

POGGIOLI: He was indeed, at Bologna University. And he, I think he taught also in the United States. His tenure as European Union Commission Chief was, perhaps, lackluster, but in his campaign here, he certainly projected the idea of a different Italy from Berlusconi. You know, a society with a sense of civic responsibility and solidarity and, as he put it, where the son of the laborer and the son of the professional have the same opportunities.

SIEGEL: Well, it wasn't that long ago that when we asked you about politics in Italy, the assumption was that Berlusconi was trailing and that it looked like Romano Prodi was going to be elected. How did Berlusconi close the gap?

POGGIOLI: Well, he focused his entire campaign on TV, on his own three commercial networks and on the three state-run networks, over which he has indirect control as Prime Minister. And starting in January, he began appearing for hours and hours on the small screen and he hammered home a very simple populist message: a vote for the opposition is a vote for communism, for higher taxes, for sacrifices, and it's a danger for democracy.

He even caused a diplomatic incident with China when he said that Mao's Communists boil babies for fertilizer. And, you know, with these tactics, he succeeded in pushing aside the much more concrete issue of the deep economic crisis. And he did it by going on the offensive, acting as if he were on the opposition and that his rivals are to blame for all the country's problems. For example, just this morning, I bumped into a pharmacist whom I know and he told me how worried he was that the Communists might win because they want to liberalize pharmacies. And he brushed aside my remark that it's Berlusconi who's a liberalizing Thatcherite wannabe, not the hard left.

SIEGEL: And the Communists would be one element of the center-left coalition that Prodi is part of, I assume.

POGGIOLI: Oh, yes, Prodi's coalition is quite disparate. It goes from centrist Catholics, Greens, post-Communists and some too small, harder left Communist parties.

SIEGEL: Sylvia, when you talk about how Berlusconi used his own television networks, those which he owns and also the government, or the ones that he controls indirectly, was there access to Prodi to get on television with anything remotely resembling equal time or equal access?

POGGIOLI: Well, theoretically, there are equal access rules that kicked in about six weeks ago and Prodi did appear. But certainly -- I mean, there've been, independent research institutes have pointed out how many, many, many more hours, I mean, something like 10 to one, that Berlusconi got over Prodi. And some of the Berlusconi stations have even been fined. There's an independent authority that supposedly oversees these things. But, you know, he is Italy's richest man. A fine doesn't really mean much for him.

SIEGEL: Well, if there in fact is one center-left coalition that controls one of the chambers of Parliament and then Berlusconi's center-right coalition that controls the other chamber, could they conceivably, say, form a wall-to-wall coalition, the government of national unity?

POGGIOLI: I think it would be very difficult. The vitriolic campaign, you know, really sharply polarized the Italians. The fact, the results have shown us that the country's absolutely divided. Even geographically, the center-right won the industrialized north, which is the country's economic engine, while the center-left has won in the center of the country and did very well also in the south, which is the poorest part of the country. And this north-south divide has historically been one of Italy's biggest problems.

There is one remote possibility that a portion of deputies from one of the small parties could go over to the center-left, but we haven't seen signs of that yet.

SIEGEL: Oh, okay and still, at this point, it's unclear which party has won the Italian election. Thank you, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

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