Italy faces political stalemate as Prodi and Berlusconi head towards tied vote

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The Independent Online

The spectre of Florida hung over Italy late last night after a general election that all commentators and opinion polls as well as the official exit poll had given to the centre-left seemed to be heading for a dead heat. According to projections by pollsters, the centre-left and centre-right coalitions appeared close to taking 50 per cent each of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in the general election.

A new election law, rammed through by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last year in a desperate last bid to hold on to power, returned Italy to a proportional representation system like the one it had had until 1994. It is supposed to guarantee a working majority by giving a premium of seats to whichever coalition does best. But late into last night it was still uncertain which of the two sides that would be.

Things began to go horribly wrong for the centre-left around 6pm yesterday, as the true results and projections based on them began to flow in. Exit polls published immediately after the close of polls at 3pm indicated that Romano Prodi and his coalition would beat Silvio Berlusconi's House of Liberties coalition by four to five percentage points. Italy appeared headed for a peaceful revolution, and an end to the tumultous Berlusconi era.

As late as 8 o'clock last night, Fausto Bertinotti, the Communist leader, was declaring that "the long Berlusconian era is at an end". But as the results came in, with the two sides drawing ever closer to parity, Romano Prodi repeatedly postponed his coalition's planned celebration party in central Rome. Prime Minister Berlusconi and Mr Prodi remained closeted with their advisers a few hundred yards apart in the capital.

The centre-left had seemed fully confident it would win the Chamber of Deputies, but was worried about the Senate - because there the premium for the winning coalition is awarded not on a national but on a regional basis. A dead heat and paralysis, or a centre-right victory in the Senate were real possibilities.

The Chamber of Deputies has nearly twice the number of seats (630) as the Senate, but it is not, as with the Commons in Britain, the ruling house. Both enjoy equal powers. A Senate victory was therefore important if the centre-left was to have a clear mandate, and that depended on their getting wins in a handful of swing regions, including Lazio (which includes Rome), Piedmont and Sicily. Yet as the evening advanced, those wins were not forthcoming.

It was a stunning upset, one that even Berlusconi had not predicted. The Italian electorate, commentators said, makes up its mind long in advance. Mr Berlusconi got the message that voters were tiring of him two years ago, when his party, Forza Italia, slumped from 29 to 21 per cent in polls for the European Parliament. Nothing he did in the past two years seemed to change that.

Yet last night he was still in with a chance. Italy, mired in debt and with zero growth, needed electoral paralysis like a hole in the head. But that is what it appears to have got. Mr Berlusconi has not governed Italy well. He has left it poorer, angrier and deeper in debt than it was five years ago, with its major institutions either reformed ineptly or not at all, with a critically wounded legal system and the image of a country that is not fully serious and is not to be trusted. Yet he is opposed by a centre-left coalition that has had its work cut out presenting itself as a credible political force.

Romano Prodio's coalition encompasses hardline and reformed Communists, Christian Democrats and anti-clerical liberals. Its manifesto, the size of a phone directory, is strong on harmless generalities but weak on concrete proposals. As Mr Berlusconi said, the only figures in it are the page numbers.

In the last week of the campaigning, Mr Berlusconi threw himself back into the fray with superhuman energy, rampaging from television studio to press conference, stabbing his finger at the camera, throwing tantrums at women interviewers, thumping his fists on the table, doing Mein Fuhrer impressions. Perhaps it was this that shifted the balance, bestirring Mr Berlusconi's more apathetic supporters and provoking a historically high turnout of 84 per cent, four points more than in 2001.

By 1am, the polling organisation Nexus predicted the centre-left would be one seat ahead in the Chamber of Deputies, which due to the rules of the new system would give them a majority of 50 seats. Yet in the Senate the centre-right appeared on target to win a slim victory. The country has never faced a situation in which the two houses, with their equal legislative powers, were controlled by opposing coaltions. Some commentators said the party controlling the Chamber of Deputies would have the moral right to rule. Others said new elections would be unavoidable.

Italy has often endured paralysis of this sort in the past, but by adopting a majority voting system it seemed to have escaped from the problem. Thanks to Mr Berlusconi's gratuitous and unwelcome electoral reform, the nightmare has returned.

A long wait

* Monday 3pm Polls close on the second day of voting. Two minutes later, an official exit poll said the centre-left would win 50 to 54 per cent of votes for the Chamber of Deputies. In the Senate, the centre-left was expected to have a majority of about 20 seats.

* 4.03pm

The centre-left, sure that the exit polls will be borne out in the real results, announces a party to start at 9pm in Piazza del Popolo.

* 5.49pm

Consternation on the left: the first projections of true results by polling organisation Nexus put the two sides neck and neck in the Senate.

* 11.34pm

From the Interior Ministry comes word that only a fraction of votes from Italian expatriates have been counted. These count for six crucial Senate seats. The Piazza del Popolo party is off.