April 13, 2006

Berlusconi allies cast doubt on his fraud claim

By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Allies of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
cast doubt on Thursday over his accusations that the Italian
general election was rigged and one coalition partner said a
review of the ballot would not change the result.

Berlusconi has demanded that the outcome of the April 9-10
vote, which handed his centre-left rival Romano Prodi a tiny
majority, should be overturned because of "widespread" fraud.

Prodi has said he won the election fairly, but newspapers
reported on Thursday that Berlusconi might seek a recount of
more than one million votes.

Uncertainty over the political situation has hurt Italian
bonds and depressed the Milan stock market.

Looking to calm the tensions, some senior centre-right
allies said they saw nothing especially untoward about the
election, which was the closest in modern Italian history.

"(Vote) checks have always been made, but I don't think
they will change the result of this election," said Lorenzo
Cesa, head of the centrist Union of Christian Democrats (UDC),
one of the four core parties in Berlusconi's coalition.

Ignazio La Russa, a leading figure in the conservative
National Alliance party, also distanced himself from
accusations of deliberate wrong-doing.

"I have no news of fraud. I have heard of serious
irregularities but that isn't a novelty. They happen in every
election," La Russa told Radio Popolare, adding, however, that
Berlusconi should never be underestimated.


According to Interior Ministry data, the center left won
the election for the lower house of parliament by just 25,000
votes out of 38.1 million ballots cast.

Berlusconi has refused to concede defeat, and earlier this
week demanded a review of 43,000 officially disputed ballots
not included in the final tally because of alleged errors over
the way they were filled out.

On Wednesday, he suggested the problem might be much
bigger, saying "60,000 statements" of possible irregularities
across Italy had to be checked "one by one."

Under Italian law only votes officially registered as
disputed can be reviewed immediately after an election, but
Berlusconi could issue a decree to widen the scrutiny. This
would have to be approved by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

The increasingly bitter stand-off tempted comparisons with
the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when victory was handed to
George W. Bush following a recount battle in Florida.

"At this point it is difficult not to fear a sort of
Italian-style Florida. A long, destabilizing confrontation over
the regularity of more than one million votes," Corriere della
Sera newspaper wrote.

Centre-left leaders have accused Berlusconi of stoking
dangerous political tensions.

"Berlusconi, stop poisoning Italy and delegitimizing the
Italians' vote," Piero Fassino, head of the biggest leftist
party, the Democrats of the Left, said late on Wednesday.


The Interior Ministry which oversaw the election said just
over a million votes had not been included in the final tally
because they had been left blank or defaced. This was 60
percent fewer than the number of void votes in the 2001

Asked on Thursday if he had evidence of vote fraud,
Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said: "No comment."

Routine checks on the 43,000 disputed ballots are being
carried out by judicial authorities and are expected to be
completed by Friday. The prime minister said the review he had
in mind would take "several days" to complete.

The Milan bourse bluechip index was down 0.4 percent by
1130 GMT while the yield spread, or risk premium, between
10-year Italian and German bonds touched a four-year high as
worries of protracted policy paralysis in Italy weighed on its

Even without accusations of fraud, Italy faces at least a
month of limbo before a new government can be sworn in because
of constitutional delays tied to the forthcoming election of a
new president, who has to oversee the transition period.