Opposition Leader Claims Victory in Italian Elections

Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi. Credit: Max Rossi/Reuters. i i

Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi holds a news conference at his coalition headquarters in downtown Rome on Friday. Max Rossi/Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Max Rossi/Reuters
Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi. Credit: Max Rossi/Reuters.

Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi holds a news conference at his coalition headquarters in downtown Rome on Friday.

Max Rossi/Reuters

Challenger Romano Prodi claims victory in Italy's general election. By a razor-thin margin, his coalition appears to have won a majority in the lower house of parliament. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is disputing the results and demanding a review of the count.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Italy is facing a period of political turmoil and uncertainty following a Parliamentary election that has left Italy, as one headline had it, split down the middle. Even as former Prime Minister Romano Prodi has claimed victory, his opponent, incumbent Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, refuses to concede.

The margin between their two coalitions is tiny. The results show a deeply divided and perhaps ungovernable country. NPR Sylvia Poggioli is monitoring the situation in Rome. And Sylvia, it looks like what Italy is facing today is something like the 2000 presidential election here in the United States. Are there similarities?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

Well, the bitter recount battle in Florida was on everyone's mind during the all night TV election coverage. Politicians and talking heads were trying to figure out what was going after the closest vote in Italian history. And the exact same thing happened here as in the U.S., with pollsters miscalculating, first predicting a comfortable victory for Prodi Center Left Coalition, then reversing themselves as the count narrowed the gap between the two sides.

By early morning, it seemed Berlusconi's coalition had a one seat lead in the Senate, but Prodi won the lower House by a few thousand votes. At that point, 12 hours after polls closed, Prodi and the Center Left claimed victory. Berlusconi was taken aback. His group disputed Prodi's victory and demanded a recount. But this morning, as the final count of overseas Italians was coming in, it seemed Prodi had also won in the Senate by a slim margin. This was the biggest surprise of all, because conventional wisdom had it that the overseas vote would go to the right.

MONTAGNE: So what's going to happen now?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's not yet known whether there will be a recount, and if so, how long that will take. So the situation is going to be confused probably for another few days. What is clear is that the country is really sharply split in half politically, socially, and even geographically. Analysts were really surprised that Berlusconi's Right won most of the industrialized North, which is the country's economic engine, while Prodi Center Left won in the Center and in the South, which his the poorest region in Italy, with high unemployment and where there's a big exodus of young people seeking work abroad.

So the election results have again highlighted Italy's historical North/South divide, which has always been the country's unresolved problem.

MONTAGNE: And Sylvia, Italy's serious economic problems were a big issue in this campaign. Will the government that is emerging from this election be able to do anything about that under these circumstances?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's the big question. The situation is extremely bad. Italy is now called the "sick man of Europe." For the first time since the end of World War II, it has zero growth--exports have plummeted, Italian industries are not competitive, they're losing ground to China and India. Italian business has not been able to adapt to a globalization. Public finances are a mess, the budget deficit is the highest in Europe and rising, tax evasion has broken all records. So, serious reforms are going to be needed, and it's going to be very difficult to do that with a small majority in Parliament.

MONTAGNE: Well, given that, are there any prospects for some sort of grand coalition between the two sides and everybody in between?

POGGIOLI: Well, most analysts believe that will be very difficult, because the campaign was so vitriolic and so polarizing, and Berlusconi and Prodi have never hidden the fact that they really detest each other.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking from Rome.

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