Italian Election Update

Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, provides an update of the growing political crisis in Italy as the country faces a shaky transition to a new government.

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MICHELE MARTIN, host:

How do you say hanging chad in Italian? It's a question many are mulling over. Three days after Italians voted in parliamentary elections, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Romano Prody is claiming victory by a hair's breadth, a mere .07 percent of the vote by some accounts. At the same time incumbent Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has not conceded defeat. Berlusconi is calling for a recount raising the prospect of a protracted Florida-style battle. Even if Prody is declared the winner, he's likely to face an uphill battle in a government divided almost equally between left and right. With us to explain is Beppe Severgnini. He's a columnist for Italy's Corriere della Sera. He's also the author of the forthcoming, La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind. He joins us by phone from Milan. Welcome.

BEPPE SEVERGNINI (Columnist, Corriere Della Sera): Hello.

MARTIN: Hello. And will there be a recount?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: First, let me try to find the Italian translation of the hanging chad...

MARTIN: Oh, okay.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: ...Said that twice. Okay, we don't have that. We don't have chads but I can give you an Italian translation for a big mess. There will be a grande cazeno(ph) because that's what it is. Although I think Florida in 2000 was probably a bigger one because the vote difference was smaller and I'll explain you in a moment that in Italy tensions run less high.

MARTIN: So, I guess that, the atmosphere there is what, is not as hostile as we remember it being in Florida?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, I was there. You know, I was in the United States, so I remember very well. I was, both in 2004 and 2000, I was in the States and I remember there was a real tension. People didn't know. Then there was the element of the brother of the winner, the President, the winner, the supposed winner, to be the governor. But let's put it this way, let's say Al Gore is a better loser than my outgoing Prime Minister. The problem all revolves around 43,000 ballots, and the difference is 25,000. I'm talking about the low, lower House, so the advantage for the center-left is 25,000. Contested ballots 43.

Everybody say that it's very difficult to reverse the verdict. You know, they should be all wrong. And then there are quite tight control, and it's very unusual that, you know, of course you have hundreds of thousands of ballots in every election, I guess, in most democracy, where people write, you know, everything they, you know, comes, they want to write. You know, I want to marry Angelina Jolie, and that is not a valid ballot. But that's, there've been, they're there all the time. This time we're talking 43,000, we don't think you will change. The atmosphere is very relaxed, and the problems will start later. Because as you say, the country's divided in half, half to the left, half to the right, and the majority, especially in the Senate, that is our upper House, different from yours, but its close to your Senate, and the majority there is really tiny.

And if, you know what? There was Italians abroad, first time they voted, many of them from United States, they actually gave the final three, four seats to Romano Prodi in the center-left.

MARTIN: So, so I'm sorry, this is very interesting, but I'm still not sure. Is there, do you think there will be a recount? And has...

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Yes, I think there will be a recount.

MARTIN: You think there will be a recount.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Yes. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And if, but if there -- has there ever been one before?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: No there's not been a recount before.

MARTIN: But people aren't all that excited about it?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, let's say a local recount. Not a general recount. Not the one that has seemed to have lost, that demands officially a recount. As it happened in the States in 2000 and now here.

MARTIN: You said, so how long will we have to wait for results?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: That's a good question. We all want to know. Probably another couple of weeks or so. And also we have to wait longer because the President of the Republic is going to be elected in May, and so he has to pick the next Prime Minister, the winner of the election. So, that's a reason why we probably won't have a Prime Minister between recount and this strange combination of the President going out and all that. So, we'll one, have a prime minister, a new one, probably Romano Prodi, almost likely, by the end, until the end of May.

MARTIN: Now you were saying that people were feeling very relaxed, but it's my understanding that there was a huge turnout for this election. Like 80 percent. And in this country, you know, that would be incredible.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, it was 84 percent, 84 percent.

MARTIN: Eighty-four percent!

Mr. SEVERGNINI: But you know, we have a different tradition again from the States. Seventy-five, eighty is normal. It was actually quite a lot. Silvio Berlusconi definitely managed, as George Bush did in 2004, to get out the vote. Definitely he was very good at doing that. But people in Italy, we tend to be quite a relaxed nation, nonetheless. And believe it or not, you come to Milan, you go around, you don't feel, you know, we're not on the verge of civil war. We're just waiting to see what happens.

MARTIN: And it was very different from what you remember in Florida, when you covered that whole situation there.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Absolutely. I mean not only in Florida, I remember in Washington, and elsewhere. In a way, can I say something blunt, but in a way, is a compliment to your country? I think you are less used to a democracy not working well, so that sort of electoral mess embarrassed you. Basically all my American friends say this could not happen to us, I mean, it's ridiculous. In Italy, let's put it this way, our democracy, in terms of technicalities and other stuff, works less smoothly. So this is just another little, you know, accident on the way, nothing dramatic.

MARTIN: People aren't just shocked by it the way they were in this country?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: No, you keep asking me, they really are not. Well, they're waiting of course. People, even people on the center-right, they say we want a ballot box. But the actual, you won't, you don't say to people, You stole the election. You just say, and I understand their point of view, they're saying, It's so close. We better look at those 43,000 ballots. They were not quite clear, so let's have a look.

MARTIN: That was my question though. Is anybody alleging any mischief making there?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, the Prime Minister used the word brolle(ph). That means cheating. But then, quite a few people inside his coalition, the center-right, now in the government, that apparently has lost the election, they told him, Mr. Prime Minister, don't use the word brolle, cheat. And he's now using irregularities.

MARTIN: So, you were here for the election here. Do you miss us, being back in Milan?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Well, you know, I miss spring in Washington. And I kind of miss, your system is easier. I mean, you win your state, you calculate all the red and blue on television. Sometimes you stand there all night thinking the other guy wona, and all that kind of very funny 2004. But in Italy, we have something similar. We imported everything from rock music to Coca Cola, we want to import long nights in front of the television, and the equivocal hanging chads. You know?

MARTIN: Well, if you don't have hanging chads, how do people vote there?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Okay, you have the symbol of the parties on the ballot box, and all you do, you put a cross on actually the symbol of the party you want. That's pretty straightforward. One for the lower House, one for the upper House.

MARTIN: Do you use a pencil or...

Mr. SEVERGNINI: This time you didn't even put the name of a person, like if someone you really wanted to be in parliament, no, this time you just vote for party.

MARTIN: But do you, but, forgive me for asking these questions, but I really don't know. Do you use, like a punch card thing, the way they do here? Do you have a pencil, and you just write it in yourself?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: You go in with two ballots. You use a pencil, just a pencil. And you give back the pencil, you're not supposed to take it home, and you hand the two ballots to the people there. There are a lot of controls. It's very quiet and smooth. And there are representatives of the main parties and a representative of the local authorities. They look what you do. And you go. Off you go, buy a gelato. That's all.

MARTIN: Beppe Severgnini, he's a columnist for the Italy's Corriere Della Sera. You know what? I am mangling your name and your paper's name, so say it for me, will you?

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Okay, Beppe Severgnini, and Corriere Della Sera. And if I may, I wrote a book about the Italian mind, which you probably gather is quite complicated but fascinating, called La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, coming out August 15.

MARTIN: And you joined us from Milan. And thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Bye bye.

MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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