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Exit polls show Berlusconi narrowly ahead in Italy vote

Exit polls put media mogul Silvio Berlusconi ahead on Monday in Italy’s parliamentary election but suggested he was uncertain of winning the upper house majority he needs to steer the country through an economic downturn.

Exit polls are not always reliable in Italy. One survey for Sky TV after voting ended gave the conservative leader a 2 percentage-point lead over centre-left rival Walter Veltroni in the lower house and a 3-point lead in the upper house. A second poll for state television also put the 71-year-old media magnate ahead in both chambers. The exit polls have a margin of error of two percent. Political analysts said this could translate into a weak government under Berlusconi, who is seeking a third term as prime minister, or even a hung parliament if 52-year-old Veltroni managed to take control of the Senate. “At the moment we’re looking at a hung parliament, or a non-working majority,” said politics professor James Walston at the American University of Rome.

Berlusconi has vowed to cut Italy’s public debt, trim taxes and liberalize the highly regulated services sector. But many Italians fear political instability will prevent the next government reviving an economy on the brink of recession. “That kind of government will find it almost impossible to pass the structural reforms Italy needs, especially in such a difficult international economic environment,” said Deutsche Bank economist Susana Garcia. Shares in Berlusconi’s Mediaset, Italy’s largest private broadcaster, were down 1.32% on a generally weak Milan stock market. But exit polls failed to predict accurately the outcome of the last parliamentary election in 2006 and do not indicate the final balance of power in the Senate, where seats are calculated on a regional rather than national basis. A clearer picture should emerge from pollsters’ projections from 5 p.m. (4:00 p.m. British time) of who will lead Italy’s 62nd government since World War Two and guide the fourth largest economy in the European Union.

Berlusconi, who was prime minister for seven months from April 1994 and from 2001-2006, had been forecast by opinion polls to secure a majority in the lower house. The Senate race was always bound to be closer due to the complex voting system. Romano Prodi, who beat Berlusconi in 2006, resigned in January 20 months into his five-year term after his narrow majority evaporated and his coalition collapsed. Prodi’s successor as leader of the Democratic Party, former Rome Mayor Veltroni, put up a stiff challenge to Berlusconi, who dominates Italy’s media via his company. Some of Italy’s 47 million voters complained there was little to choose from between the two platforms. Both pledged to reduce public debt -- the third highest in the world in absolute terms -- but also cut taxes to boost spending and growth, which the International Monetary Fund expects to slow to just 0.3% this year. Up to a third of voters were undecided until the last minute and the nation went to the urns in a despondent mood, tired of the squabbling politicians and chronic political instability. (Swissinfo)