Court confirms Prodi victory, but Berlusconi may challenge

A top Italian court tonight confirmed the slim electoral victory of centre-left leader Romano Prodi in the lower house of parliament, although was not conceding defeat.

A top Italian court tonight confirmed the slim electoral victory of centre-left leader Romano Prodi in the lower house of parliament.

Minutes later however, a top ally of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s said the conservative coalition was not conceding defeat.

The ANSA news agency quoted Giulio Tremonti, the Economy Minister as saying that “[The announcement] does not exhaust all the checks on the electoral results.”

Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, announced tonight that it could appeal against the court’s decision to parliamentary committees and to a regional administrative court in Lazio, the region that includes Rome, according to Italian news agencies.

Niccolo Ghedini, the deputy with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party told ANSA he believed an appeal to the administrative court “is a delicate question” but claimed that “in theory it is possible”.

Under Italian law, parliament’s election committees would have to rule on any challenges once the new parliament reconvenes. But observers said it would be unlikely that the new lawmakers would take any action to put themselves out of business.

The Court of Cassation, which is conducting a review of contested ballots from this month’s parliamentary election, said Prodi had won the lower house by about 24,000 votes – a margin virtually unchanged from the one previously announced.

The court released its announcement after a review of some 2,100 ballots for the lower Chamber of Deputies that were not immediately included in the overall count as the voting intentions were not clear. In the Senate there were another 3,100 contested ballots.

The Interior Ministry reduced the number of contested ballots last week from a combined 80,000 for both houses to the combined 5,200 – boosting the likelihood that Prodi’s victory would stand. The ministry explained the confusion by saying that blank ballots and other invalid ballots had been lumped in by mistake with the contested ballot sheets.

The small number of contested ballots in the Senate was not expected to reverse Prodi’s slim victory in that chamber either. Preliminary reports by regional offices confirmed Prodi’s victory.

After the court’s announcement, Prodi said Italians should have no more doubts about his electoral win.

“Finally the electoral affair is over,” Prodi told a news conference at his Rome headquarters. “Italians have no more doubts about our victory.”

“We are aware of the rifts and the divisions that we will have to heal,” said Prodi. “As we are aware of the problems and difficulties we will have to face.”

Prodi said he had not received a phone call from Berlusconi, indicating the premier was still unwilling to concede defeat. “He didn’t call me and I don’t know why,” Prodi said in a response to a question.

Thanks to a majority bonus aimed at making the chamber more governable, Prodi’s coalition is assigned 55% of the seats in the lower house, regardless of the vote gap.

Prodi gained a two-seat majority in the Senate, even though Berlusconi won the popular vote for the upper house, due to a complicated system of regional bonuses.

In any case, it will be weeks before Prodi can take over as premier.

It is up to the president to give the mandate to form a government. However, the current president’s term expires in mid-May, and he has indicated he wants to leave the task to his successor.

Meanwhile, Prodi kept receiving calls of congratulations from world leaders, the latest being interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Prodi’s spokesman, Silvio Sircana, said US President George W Bush – a close Berlusconi ally – had not called.

Prodi gained a two-seat majority in the Senate, even though Berlusconi won the popular vote for the upper house, due to a complicated system of regional bonuses.

Berlusconi ally Mirko Tremaglia, the Minister for Italians Abroad, claimed that Prodi’s majority in the Senate was not certain because one of the newly-elected senators representing Italians overseas had switched over to Berlusconi’s coalition from Prodi’s.

Tremaglia did not name the senator and Prodi’s coalition dismissed his claim as absurd.

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