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Italians Deliver Verdict on Berlusconi

April 10, 2006

ROME (AP) _ Italians returned to the polls Monday for a final day of voting to deliver a verdict on conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who failed to jump-start a flat economy as the nation’s longest-serving premier since World War II.

Trying to oust the flamboyant Berlusconi from the premier’s office was Romano Prodi, an economics professor and former European Union chief who defeated him for the premiership in 1996.

Polls were not allowed to be published in the two weeks before the vote, but earlier surveys gave a slight edge to Prodi.

After 14 hours of voting on Sunday, two-thirds of Italy’s 47 million eligible voters had cast ballots, the Interior Ministry said.

Surveys had shown that much of the electorate was unenthusiastic about the race.

Linda Mille, a doctor, said Sunday that she voted for the center-left to boot Berlusconi out of power: ``I don’t think there can be anyone worse than Berlusconi.″

In Rome, 79-year-old Antonio Recine said he voted for the right, brushing off economic concerns. ``All told, it doesn’t seem to me like we’re starving here,″ he said.

A staunch U.S. ally, Berlusconi, 69, founded a business empire that expanded to include Italy’s main private TV networks, the Milan soccer team, as well as publishing, advertising and insurance interests.

He was battling to capture his third premiership with a center-right bloc _ an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces and the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists.

One potential issue _ Iraq _ was largely deflated before the campaign began, when Berlusconi announced that Italy’s troops there would be withdrawn by year’s end.

Berlusconi, who won the premiership in 1994 and 2001, had strongly supported President Bush despite fierce opposition among Italians against the war. Prodi has said he would bring the troops home as soon as possible, security conditions permitting.

The ailing economy was at center stage, although neither candidate offered any bold ideas for its revival.

Berlusconi promised to abolish a homeowner’s property tax. Prodi said he would revive an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi, but only for the richest. He also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.

Critics contended that Berlusconi, instead of helping the economy, used his comfortable majority in Parliament to push through laws to protect his business interests and to help him in his years of judicial woes. Berlusconi contends the laws benefit all Italians and that he has been the victim of left-leaning prosecutors.

Berlusconi depicted Prodi as a front-man for Communists in a campaign to damage Italian democracy.

Italians were voting under a proportional system, thanks to a law pushed through by Berlusconi’s government to increase the chances that his smaller allies would win seats in Parliament.

Hours before the polls opened Sunday, three gasoline bombs were hurled at a polling station in the northeastern town of Vittorio Veneto, and fliers found at the scene denounced both coalitions, police said. No one was hurt.

Italy’s two main broadcasters, state-run RAI and private Mediaset, part of Berlusconi’s business empire, were airing exit polls by pollster Nexus after voting stations close at 9 a.m. EDT.

Nexus has set up mock voting booths outside 1,050 polling stations across the country that are expected to be representative samples, where people can anonymously indicate how they voted. The margin of error on Nexus’ exit polls is 2 percentage points.


Associated Press writer Ariel David contributed to this report.

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