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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 April 2006, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Italy in limbo over vote counting
By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rome

Policeman inspects ballot boxes
Police are inspecting ballot boxes found in the street in Rome
Italy is in a state of political limbo. The Italian Interior Ministry has declared the centre-left leader Romano Prodi the winner of this election, with a thin majority in both houses of parliament.

But so far, Silvio Berlusconi has refused to concede.

On Tuesday, the outgoing prime minister called for a recount, insisting there were many "murky aspects" to the vote.

"There is a majority of just 25,204 votes in the lower house," said Mr Berlusconi.

"And many disputed ballot papers. Only when the necessary legal double-checking is completed, shall we concede.

"For the time being, no-one can say they have won."

Vote boxes

There are 43,000 disputed ballot papers for the lower house that election officials discounted. And there may also be the votes found on Wednesday in five boxes dumped in a street in Rome.

All of them will be reviewed this week with a final decision taken by magistrates. That should be completed by late Thursday and the overall national tally adjusted accordingly.

I have absolutely no fear of a reversal of the situation. It's a completely tranquil victory
Romano Prodi

It is unlikely that all the disputed ballots will be included in the official count and even if they were there is no indication there would be enough to reverse the result.

There have also been question marks about the foreign vote for the upper house, the Senate. The votes from abroad were crucial in securing Mr Prodi a majority of two seats in the upper chamber.

An electoral office attached to the Court of Appeals in Rome will review those disputed votes from abroad and again magistrates will make the final decision. The constitution says it is up to the new parliament to finally verify the election result. Parliament meets for the first time on 28 April.

When they do meet Mr Prodi will need a vote of confidence in his government from both houses.

He can count on a comfortable majority in the lower house of parliament; the winning coalition gets 55% of the seats, regardless of the margin of its victory. But in the Senate, the majority is less certain. Mr Prodi has 158 seats, Mr Berlusconi 156, and there is one independent who has yet to decide which way he would vote.

Suspicion

There are also seven life senators who now play a key role. It is unlikely, however, that they would oppose the formation of Mr Prodi's new government since most of them are from the centre left.

Adding to all this uncertainty is the likelihood that Mr Prodi will not be asked to form his new government until mid-May, after parliament chooses a successor to the 85-year-old President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. His mandate expires next month.

Despite all this confusion, Mr Prodi says he is not worried his victory will be reversed.

"I have absolutely no fear of a reversal of the situation. It's a completely tranquil victory," he said

"I don't know what Berlusconi is talking about. He was in control of everything in this election. He was in charge of the interior ministry, and the authorities who checked for irregularities.

"I don't know why he's putting any suspicion on himself."

Mr Prodi has been holding talks over the past few days and he says he will soon have made his choices for his new Cabinet.



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