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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 April 2006, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Ballot check tests Italian nerves
By Benedetto Cataldi
BBC Monitoring

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has refused to admit defeat in the general election, alleging that all voting "irregularities" must be checked.

What do Italy's election ballot papers look like?

His rival, centre-left leader Romano Prodi, insists that his victory was valid. Official results showed that Mr Prodi won by a razor-thin margin.

Some 43,000 indistinct ballots that had not been added to the count are being examined by judges in an effort to determine the voters' intention. Their check is due to be complete by Friday.

But this is no recount: under Italian law, only "contested" votes can be reviewed. Typically these are votes where the pencil cross on the ballot paper is so faint that it can be confused with some imperfection on the paper itself.

Mr Berlusconi did not order this review, which is compulsory under Italian law.

The law says any other election disputes have to be reviewed by the new parliament.

Electoral changes

The contested votes were far fewer than in the 2001 general election, according to Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, who is in charge of running the election.

But this time the result was so narrow that these votes could make a big difference - in theory at least.

Romano Prodi
Romano Prodi insists he can lead a strong government
A system of full proportional representation was reintroduced for this election, after changes to that effect were pushed through by Mr Berlusconi's government last year. This made small margins more significant in terms of seats allocated than was the case in the last election.

Mr Prodi won the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and an automatic majority of 63 MPs by a margin of only 25,000 votes.

So technically if almost all of the 43,000 contested votes were assigned to Mr Berlusconi, the election result could be overturned. But most Italian commentators think that is unlikely.

One of Mr Berlusconi's top allies, Union of Christian Democrats leader Lorenzo Cesa, said on Thursday that he did not believe these routine checks would make any difference.

Despite speculation about court battles and political paralysis it is normal procedure in Italy for the provincial and regional appeals courts to review contested ballots and to make the final announcement of the election results.

They will then forward their decision to Italy's Supreme Court in Rome, which has the task of officially proclaiming the election results.

Any dispute after that will have to be solved by the new parliament.

Checks have always been made, but I don't think they will change the result of this election
Lorenzo Cesa
Head of centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC)

Following the review of contested ballots, the provincial courts will routinely double-check the official written reports from all 60,000 polling stations, to ensure that their vote tally corresponds to the results that local election officials reported to the interior ministry.

This second checking phase must be over by the end of next week.

The heads of polling stations gave their final count to local officials, who passed on the results by phone to the interior ministry, so the written records should tally with these verbal reports.

Italians abroad swing Senate

Italians aged over 25 also had a second ballot paper to elect the Senate (upper house). For the first time Italians abroad were also allowed to vote for their own representatives - 12 MPs and six senators.

This was crucial: the senators elected abroad swung the upper house in the centre-left's favour, after Italian expatriates overwhelmingly voted for Mr Prodi.

Mr Berlusconi has complained of irregularities in the vote abroad - which was held by correspondence and managed by Italian consular offices all over the world.

But the centre-left's victory margin in the foreign constituencies was so large - double Mr Berlusconi's votes in some cases - that it seems highly unlikely that any review will overturn that result.





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