Italians Vote in Ballot Seen As Referendum on Premier

By Robin Pomeroy
Monday, April 10, 2006

ROME, April 9 -- Italians voted Sunday in a two-day election that could oust Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who promised prosperity but failed to lift Italy's flagging economy during five years in power.

Berlusconi faces a fierce challenge from his long-standing political foe, Romano Prodi, a former European Commission president.

"I slept very well. It's a beautiful sunny day, and I hope everything finishes in the best possible way," Prodi said as he voted in his home town of Bologna, in northern Italy.

Berlusconi, the U.S. government's strongest ally in continental Europe and Italy's richest man, hopes his late promises of tax cuts will swing a surprise victory.

True to form, Berlusconi caused a minor stir when he went to vote in Italy's financial capital, Milan, with his 95-year-old mother, Rosa, who kissed his hand for the cameras.

"Put a cross on the Forza Italia logo," Berlusconi told his mother, referring to his party. He was immediately censured by a monitor who considered the remark campaigning.

"Not even with my mother? You really are the Italy that has no love," said Berlusconi, who has rejected accusations that he has bent campaign rules.

Opinion polls have not been published for two weeks, but Prodi, who beat Berlusconi in a general election 10 years ago, has led the race since returning to Italian politics in 2004 from a five-year stint as head of the European Commission.

Exit polls are expected immediately after voting ends Monday afternoon, with official results likely in the evening.

The acrimonious campaign, in which Berlusconi used offensive language and Prodi compared his rival to a drunk, has turned the vote into something of a referendum on the prime minister's term as head of a conservative alliance.

"I've got flu and a fever, but I'm still determined to vote because I don't want to see Italy in this state for another five years," said Marina Zappaterra, a social worker voting in Rome.

Whoever wins will face the task of cutting the world's third largest national debt while trying to breathe new life into an economy that grew an average of 0.6 percent a year under Berlusconi.

Prodi, if elected, would also need to manage a disparate coalition, from communists to centrist Roman Catholics, united mostly by a dislike of Berlusconi.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company