Center-left candidate sweeps Italian primary

Former Italian premier Romano Prodi, leader of L'Unione, The Union center-left coalition, won a sweeping victory in a nationwide primary on Monday.
Former Italian premier Romano Prodi, leader of L'Unione, The Union center-left coalition, won a sweeping victory in a nationwide primary on Monday.Sandro Pace / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Italian premier Romano Prodi won a sweeping victory in a nationwide primary, according to near-final results released Monday, and will challenge conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi in next year’s election.

The results showed Prodi, the center-left candidate who also is a former European Commission president, won 74.4 percent of the vote. More than 99 percent of votes have been tabulated.

Prodi’s widely expected victory set the stage for a run against Berlusconi, who is likely to remain at the helm of the conservatives for the mid-2006 vote. The two faced each other in an election 10 years ago, which Prodi won.

Berlusconi returned to power in 2001 parliamentary elections.

“This is just the appetizer. Italians will hand him (Berlusconi) the rest at the elections,” Piero Fassino, the secretary of the largest center-left party, said.

The election must be held by next spring. No date has been set.

The closest of Prodi’s six opponents in Sunday’s primary — Italy’s first held nationwide — was veteran hard-line communist Fausto Bertinotti, who won 14.6 percent of the vote.

Candidate wants Italian civilians in Iraq
Prodi has said he would replace Italian troops in Iraq with a civilian force if his coalition wins next year’s election. Italians were largely opposed to the war in Iraq and to Berlusconi’s decision to send some 3,000 troops after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help with reconstruction.

The government is gradually pulling some of its contingent out of Iraq.

The primary drew more than 4 million voters to the polls, organizers said. The higher-than-expected turnout gave Prodi a strong endorsement ahead of the elections.

“I’m euphoric,” the normally restrained Prodi said, adding the turnout was “beyond our every dream.”

He described the high turnout as a vote of protest against policies enacted by Berlusconi’s conservative government — especially a new electoral law recently rushed through Parliament and bitterly contested by the opposition.

“If over 4 million people go to the polls it means there’s a great desire for change,” Prodi said Monday.

‘A farce compared to U.S. primaries’
The conservative government’s popularity has been sagging recently amid economic woes and infighting. Opinion polls show the center-left solidly ahead, though recent polls indicate the gap between the two coalitions is narrowing.

Berlusconi has described the center-left primaries as a “farce compared to U.S. primaries.”

On Sunday, he said: “Prodi has only one way to win a vote: Have only center-left people go to the polls, just like he did today.”

To vote in the primary, Italians had to pay $1.20 and claim to be a center-left voter.

Though organizers hailed the vast participation as a victory of democracy, some observers expressed reservations about a vote that appeared more like a crowning for Prodi than real competition.

“It’s a meaningless result,” said Enrico La Loggia, a minister and member of the premier’s Forza Italia party.

Confidence in Berlusconi
Cabinet Minister Roberto Maroni, of the Northern League party, said the primary “was not an opinion poll on Berlusconi” and insisted his coalition would win the general election.

The other contestants were either unknowns or leaders of small parties hoping to gain exposure and the chance to shape the coalition’s platform ahead of the general elections. Aside from Bertinotti and Prodi, they all received less than 5 percent of the vote, results showed.

The primary also was marred by the killing of a local politician just after he voted in southern Italy.

The 54-year-old Francesco Fortugno, of the center-left, was shot and killed in the small town of Locri, an area plagued by organized crime.