Image: Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi.
Alessandro Bianchi  /  Reuters
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures during a news conference at the Chigi Palace in Rome, on Tuesday, as he refuses to concede defeat in Italy's general elections.
updated 4/13/2006 6:07:02 PM ET 2006-04-13T22:07:02

Italian politics were in turmoil Thursday as judges began tallying tens of thousands of contested ballots and the country’s leading newspaper compared the situation to the chaotic U.S. presidential vote count in 2000.

The routine examination of ambiguously marked ballots is unlikely to tip the election in the lower Chamber of Deputies to right-wing media mogul Premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose party appears to have narrowly lost to center-left leader Romano Prodi.

The tally could, however, shift the Senate to Berlusconi’s coalition, giving the premier effective control of the upper house. That outcome, while unlikely, would divide the parliament between the two candidates and impede Prodi from forming a government, leaving Italy in political deadlock.

Berlusconi continues to refuse to accept Prodi’s win and to demand a full recount, which Italian law does not allow.

Opposition leaders Thursday accused the premier of behaving irresponsibly.

“Prodi and the center-left have won the elections, and the premier continues to refuse to accept defeat, behaving in an incomprehensible and, given his institutional role, irresponsible manner,” Italian news agencies quoted Democrats of the Left head Piero Fassino, leader of the largest bloc in Prodi’s coalition, as saying.

Official returns gave Prodi’s center-left coalition the majority in both houses of parliament. The margin was a mere 25,000 votes in the lower Chamber of Deputies.

82,000 ballots scrutinized
As is routine, judges were examining 43,000 ballots from the lower chamber that were not immediately included in the official count because of ambiguous markings, damage or other problems.

They also were examining another 39,000 ballots for the Senate vote.

The recount has the potential to swing some closely-fought regions in favor of Berlusconi’s coalition in the Senate. In the Naples’ region, Campania, Prodi’s side won with 49.6 percent to Berlusconi’s 49.1 percent.

Italian ballots require voters to draw a cross or a bar over a party emblem in pencil.

“We are examining the markings that were left on the ballots,” said Judge Evangelista Popolizio, president of the Lazio region’s electoral office for the Senate.

Prodi calm amid recount
Prodi insisted his victory was on solid ground. “There is nothing to worry about; we are serene,” he said in his home city of Bologna, where was spending the Easter holidays.

Late Thursday, his office announced that Prodi had received calls of congratulations from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Berlusconi has demanded checks “one by one” of at least 60,000 polling stations — almost all of them — and more than 1 million annulled ballots.

‘Italian-style Florida’
Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, compared Italy’s situation to the 2000 U.S. presidential race, when the election hinged on a recount in Florida.

“At this point, it is difficult not to fear a kind of ‘Italian-style Florida,”’ Corriere said in an editorial Thursday.

It could be weeks before Italy has a government. The outcome of the election must be approved by Italy’s highest court, and it is up the president to give the head of the winning coalition a mandate to form a government. However, the current president’s mandate runs out May 18, and he has said that he plans to leave that job in the hands of his successor.

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