Eight months on, Italy recounts its votes

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The Independent Online

Eight months after losing Italy's general election by a mere 27,000 votes, Silvio Berlusconi still seems to think he can win it. And maybe he can.

The media mogul has been shouting himself hoarse alleging brogli (vote-rigging) and demanding a recount practically since the polls closed.

And this week he finally got some satisfaction when the election committee of the Senate announced that it is to undertake the massive task of recounting a large sample of blank and spoiled ballots, to assess whether there was an attempt to fix the result.

The irony is that what triggered the recount is the allegation by a left-wing weekly that Mr Berlusconi himself tried to rig the election electronically, and only failed when his Interior Minister got cold feet.

The recounting exercise was agreed this week, a fortnight after the release of a sensational video documentary by the magazine Il Diario. The film points out that while in past elections there was a wide discrepancy in the number of blank ballots across the country, in April the number was drastically reduced and was practically uniform from north to south.

"There is no smoking gun," admits the editor of Il Diario and co-director of the film, Enrico Deaglio. "The proof will be difficult to find because they have hidden it. Much evidence has been destroyed. But if they look hard, someone could yet find it."

The hypothesis of the film is that, in his desperation to hang on to power, Mr Berlusconi acquired, probably from the United States, the electronic expertise to convert blank and spoiled ballots into votes for his party, Forza Italia. In the film, a computer programmer in Florida who has claimed under oath in an American court that his employer asked him to write software to alter votes on electronic voting machines, explains how it could be done. The programmer, Clint Curtis, who has detractors as well as supporters in the US, claims that only a handful of people need know of the existence of such a programme.

Voting in Italy is still done with pencil and paper, but in April's election the collating of votes in the regions was done electronically for the first time. Among the circumstantial evidence gathered by the film is the fact that the computing company entrusted with this job was run by a son of the then interior minister, Beppe Pisanu. Other suspicious factors include the tortuously slow arrival of results throughout the night, and unexplained late-night meetings after the close of polls between Mr Pisanu and Mr Berlusconi at the latter's Rome headquarters.

The whole confection has a strong whiff of conspiracy theory about it - but the discrepancy between the numbers and distribution of blank ballots in this election and in previous ones has silenced many sceptics. The thesis of the film is that Mr Berlusconi was on track to win a tainted victory, but that Mr Pisanu, a veteran Christian Democrat, suffered an attack of conscience and aborted the coup at the last minute.

Mr Deaglio said of the recount: "It's dawned on them that the electoral data is unpresentable, incredible and absurd, and that it has been kept secret for eight months and only now is timidly being released."

But although it is the centre-left that stands to gain, at least morally, from the investigation, there has been little enthusiasm. "It's not surprising," said James Walston, a professor of politics at the American University in Rome. "If you've won and you are in power, you don't want to upset the apple cart."

In fact the centre-left, as often in the past, finds itself upstaged by Mr Berlusconi. In Mr Deaglio's film he is the villain of the piece - but he has wasted no time in hailing the decision to recount votes as a victory for himself. And his coalition allies are already celebrating what one right-wing MP called "an amazing own-goal by Deaglio and the centre-left".

The recounting process will start in January and is expected to take at least three months to complete.