Blow for Prodi as candidate's victory in Senate presidency poll is annulled

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The Independent Online

After a day of high tension, Italy's prime minister-elect, Romano Prodi, faced a major setback last night as a vote for the president of the Senate was annulled after his candidate, Franco Marini, appeared to have won.

The victory for the 73-year-old union leader, which came after the first round of voting ended without result, was contested by the centre right.

The initial count gave Mr Marini a one-vote victory for the prestigious post. However, centre-right politicians complained that Mr Marini's first name was given as Francesco on two of the ballots, making them invalid.

The election was a first crucial test of Mr Prodi's ability to govern after winning a general election earlier this month by the slimmest of margins.

Italy's election system gives the winning coalition in the Chamber of Deputies a premium of seats and a healthy majority, but in the Senate, which has equal powers to the Chamber, the majority is roughly two.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has refused to acknowledge Mr Prodi's victory in the election and has kept up a barrage of abuse against the centre-left, accusing it of obtaining the victory by fraud even after it was confirmed by the Court of Cassation, the highest court in the land. But on Thursday he said privately that if both Mr Marini and Mr Prodi's candidate for president of the Chamber of Deputies, the veteran Communist Fausto Bertinotti, win their votes today, he would go to the presidential palace and submit his resignation.

Last night senators in Mr Prodi's coalition greeted the news of Mr Marini's victory with a standing ovation lasting four minutes. According to first reports, Mr Marini had obtained the bare minimum required of 162 votes, while Giulio Andreotti was stuck on 155. In the first round, Mr Andreotti, 87, obtained 140, but with the withdrawal of the Northern League candidate, Roberto Calderoli, the League's 15 senators switched their support to him.

The slimness of the apparent margin of victory, and the fact that it took two rounds to achieve, is reason enough to give Mr Prodi's supporters concern for the stability of his government, and Mr Berlusconi and the centre-right new reason to believe that their time in opposition may not be long.

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