Italy awaits election result

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The Independent Online

Two exit polls indicated today that challenger Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition was set to beat Premier Silvio Berlusconi's forces in parliamentary elections.

Two Nexus polls issued 45 minutes apart indicated that in voting yesterday and today, Prodi's coalition had garnered between 50 and 54 percent of the vote in both the upper and lower chambers of parliament, while Berlusconi's coalition had between 45 and 49 percent.

Both exit polls gave Prodi's coalition between 159 and 170 seats in the Senate, compared to 139 and 150 for Berlusconi's centre-right alliance. The polls, which had a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, did not give an immediate breakdown for seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

Dario Franceschini, coordinator of the centre-left La Margherita, or Daisy, party - a major partner in Prodi's coalition - was jubilant after the first exit poll was released, but cautioned that prudence was necessary.

"Italy has been waiting for five years, and deserves this moment," he said. "If the vote confirms these first exit polls, a strong victory awaits us."

Paolo Guzzanti, a senator with Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, appeared resigned to defeat.

"The numbers can change a little but it is clear that the centre-left has won and the centre-right has lost," he said after the second poll was released. "It will be up to us to organize the opposition."

Other centre-right leaders, however, urged caution.

"We want to see the real vote count," Denis Verdini, electoral coordinator for Forza Italia, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency. "There have always been surprises" with this electoral law.

Berlusconi, 69, a billionaire media mogul and the longest-serving premier since World War II, failed to jump-start a flat economy during his tenure. He founded a business empire that expanded to include Italy's main private TV networks, the Milan soccer team, as well as publishing, advertising and insurance interests.

He was battling to capture his third premiership with a centre-right bloc - an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces and the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists.

One potential issue - Iraq - was largely deflated before the campaign began, when Berlusconi announced that Italy's troops there would be withdrawn by year's end.

Berlusconi had strongly supported US President George W Bush over Iraq despite fierce opposition among Italians against the war.

Prodi has said he would bring troops home as soon as possible, security conditions permitting.

While Italians were mainly preoccupied by economic worries, the candidates seemed to throw more insults at each other than comprehensive plans for turning around the economy.

Berlusconi promised to abolish a homeowner's property tax. Prodi said he would revive an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi, but only for the richest. He also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.

Critics contended that instead of helping the economy, Berlusconi used his comfortable majority in Parliament above all to push through laws to protect his business interests and help him in his years of judicial woes. Berlusconi contends the laws benefit all Italians and that he has been the innocent victim of left-leaning prosecutors.

Berlusconi depicted Prodi as a front-man for Communists in a campaign to damage Italian democracy.

Italians were voting under a proportional system, thanks to a law pushed through by Berlusconi's government to increase the chances that his smaller allies would win seats in Parliament.

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