Berlusconi Won't Concede Defeat in Italy

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Despite his rival's claim of victory in Italy's general election, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refuses to concede the race, instead suggesting that a broad coalition be formed. With votes still being counted, a court may have to determine the winner between Berlusconi and center-left challenger Romano Prodi.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. A close vote, a refusal to concede and calls for a recount. The aftermath of Italy's election does have a certain resonance in this country. Today, Italy's interior ministry confirmed the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi as the winner. It won a majority in both the lower house and in the senate. But conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has refused to concede defeat until the ballot tallies are carefully analyzed.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, Berlusconi has also suggested that there have been serious irregulatories.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: After an uncharacteristic three-day silence, a stony Berlusconi appeared before the media this evening, reprimanding Prodi for having dared to declare himself the winner after a vote that split the electorate in half.

SILVIO BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) We do not believe that today, as things stand, someone can claim to have won, given the numbers, which display many, many, many murky aspects, I would say too many.

POGGIOLI: Thanks to the new complicated proportional electoral law pushed through Parliament by the Berlusconi government, the Prodi coalition was deemed the winner, despite getting fewer popular votes than the center-right. So, Berlusconi, pointing out that his center-right coalition has an absolute majority of votes, demanded a thorough recount and warned that anyone who tries to exclude half the country from the democratic process would be showing irresponsible self-interest and would pay the consequences.

The Prime Minister also said that even if the recount should prove that the center-left had won, Prodi and his team would have to show how they can effectively govern a country split in two. Then, Berlusconi suddenly changed tack and showed a more conciliatory side. He said we should look to a country like Germany, where the government is a grand left-right coalition. Berlusconi suggested sitting down to talk with Prodi.

BERLUSCONI: (Through translator) We should see if we can't join forces and govern in harmony. This would be an act of humility and realism, because the country does not benefit in this kind of civil war atmosphere.

POGGIOLI: The reaction of the center-left camp was immediate. A statement accused the Berlusconi government of serious falsification of reality. It called the proposal political propaganda. And earlier in the day Prodi told reporters he will govern and stick to the coalition he campaigned with, centrists, Catholics, greens, social democrats, liberals and Communists.

ROMANO PRODI: (Through translator) We won with a majority in the house and senate, which allows us to govern with this coalition. This majority gives tranquility to the country. We do not intend to govern with parties different from those we campaigned with.

POGGIOLI: In the campaign, Prodi appeared to be a mild-mannered and uncharismatic leader, but he has the advantage of having been a former Prime Minister, former head of the European Union Commission and an economics professor. This is crucial because the major problem he has to tackle immediately is the economic decline that has made Italy the sick man of Europe. The country is at zero growth, productivity is down and exports have plummeted, as Italy feels the pressure of the Asian tigers China and India.

The ratings agency Standard & Poor's said it's urgent for Italy to cut its debt and rein its budget deficit to stave off further rating cuts. News of the center-left's slim victory sent jitters into the Milan stock market, which lost 1 percent today. Ferruccio de Bortoli, editor of the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, echoes the concerns of big business that the presence of unreconstructed Communists in the Prodi coalition will weaken his resolve to push through tough austerity measures.

FERRUCCIO DE BORTOLI: (Through translator) It would be opportune if the Prodi and Berlusconi camps join in a dialog to give international markets a sign of tranquility and normality. Is that too much to ask?

POGGIOLI: But analysts agree that after such a vitriolic campaign, dialogue will be very difficult between two political leaders whose platforms and views of the world are diametrically opposed.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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