Berlusconi's last stand dashed by vote error

The Italian interior ministry's acknowledgement that the number of ballots in question for the lower house of parliament was not near enough to overturn his rival Romano Prodi's 24,000-vote majority discredited Mr Berlusconi's claim that he lost to Mr Prodi through "cheating".

The announcement was made in a statement just hours after La Repubblica newspaper reported that Mr Berlusconi had ordered the interior minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, to annul the election hours after balloting ended but that Mr Pisanu had refused.

After four days of political stalemate, the interior ministry said that a "material error" had led officials at the ministry to claim initially that 43,028 votes were disputed in the voting for the Chamber of Deputies but that, in reality the number was 2,131. It was the same story as regards the Senate - the ministry initially claimed as many as 39,822 votes were disputed while the true number, the ministry admitted, was only 3,135. The fresh figures, released without further explanation, meant that, in all, only some 5,000 votes were in question, too few to jeopardise Mr Prodi's slim but respectable majority in the lower house of some 25,000 votes. "The interior ministry note does not surprise us," said his spokesman, Silvio Sircana.

The bizarre U-turn by the ministry is likely to increase pressure on Mr Pisanu to resign, after allegations of irregular conduct marred his handling of the vote counting.

But it sparked fresh jubilation among Prodi supporters. "We were right. The Interior Ministry has finally ended the charade by Berlusconi and [his party] Forza Italia," the biggest party in Prodi's coalition said in a statement. "We hope that the prime minister and his party will now recognise the outcome of the election in a responsible way and stop delegitimising the vote of Italians," said the Democrats of the Left.

Mr Prodi predicted that the final tally would "confirm the victory". "The match is over," he was quoted as telling Apcom news agency. "Now let's move on."

There was no immediate sign, however, of the increasingly isolated prime minister conceding defeat. "We are carrying on. We will resist," he told a crowd of supporters shouting "Silvio! Silvio!" outside his Rome residence. And, however dire the situation seems for Mr Berlusconi, supporters maintained hope that the media tycoon could somehow prevail.

The minister for Italians living abroad, Mirko Tremaglia, called yesterday for a new election for the 12 deputies and six senators selected by foreign nationals. Foreign voting "should be done again" because there were "grave irregularities" that meant that more than 228,000 Italians abroad did not get to vote, said Mr Tremaglia, a "post-fascist" who, as a young man, fought with Blackshirt forces defending Benito Mussolini's last-ditch Nazi-puppet government of Salò in northern Italy.

Mr Berlusconi's office declined to comment on the interior ministry statement last night, but pointed out that all election data was still "preliminary" ahead of the official court confirmation. He has said he is awaiting the verification of the election result by Italy's highest court. After the 26 regional election offices complete their tally, they forward the results to the court for a final review. The ruling is not expected before next week.

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