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INSIGHT

Italian Election Coverage

Aired April 10, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: Into the early hours in Italy. A close election drags on with a stunningly close count. Silvio Berlusconi is struggling for reelection and still no final result.
Hello and welcome.

From the moment the early numbers started emerging, they were wrong. First, Romano Prodi looked likely to be elected to lead a center left government. Then Prime Minister Berlusconi's center right coalition seemed to hang on, at least in the upper house of parliament.

Then it looked like the prime minister would hold both houses, but only barely.

Now you would have to be brave or foolish to guess, and most people in Italy are just waiting to see if they have elected a weak government or a paralyzed one.

On our program today, Italy's election.

We begin with our Rome bureau chief, Alessio Vinci, who I expect thought he would be in bed by now -- Alessio.

ALESSIO VINCI, CNN ROME BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Jonathan, you know, Italian politicians never agree on anything, and tonight perhaps for the first time they agree at least on one thing, and that is that these elections are too close to call and that it would be impossible, very difficult, to project a winner until the very last vote is counted.

The very latest results show that Mr. Berlusconi is leading in the upper house of parliament with 50 percent of the votes against a 49.1 percent for Mr. Prodi. The situation is the other way around in the lower house of parliament, where Mr. Prodi is ahead with 50.4 percent of the vote against 49.1 percent of the vote for Mr. Berlusconi.

In some districts, Jonathan, it is really a fighting battle to the last vote, and we are talking about just a few thousand differences between the winner and the loser.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): The campaign was bitterly fought. The race is tight and the stakes are high. The results too close to call.

As votes are counted, neither side has been able to establish a clear lead in either the upper or lower house of parliament. Should the final result indicate a different majority in the two houses of parliament, there are three basic options.

The two political blocks agree to back a non-political government led by a technocrat or to form a grand coalition similar to the one in Germany, unlikely under the current political climate. Or, finally, demand new elections.

It's a result few analysts could have predicted, but one that emerged from one of the ugliest political campaigns in recent Italian history. Campaign rhetoric was abounding with candidates trading each other insults.

Words such as "drunkard," "idiot," "criminal" and "moron" contributed to making this one of the ugliest political challenges in recent history, an atmosphere felt at the polls.

"They fought a lot," says Sandro (ph), a doctor, "but in reality, they haven't said much. They haven't addressed the important issues."

Vitorio (ph) says the campaign was exasperating, bringing out the negative side of Italy. "Everybody knows it," he smiled, showing us the latest issue of "The Economist." "Enough," the cover says. Enough of Berlusconi for him as well.

The choice is between two sharply different candidates. The flamboyant prime minister, Senor Berlusconi, promising lower taxes and higher pensions, and Romano Prodi, a former university professor and one- time European Commission president, as dull as the incumbent is flashy, who promises to cut labor costs and more Euro-centric government, and to unite a divided country.

RENATO MANNHEIMER, POLLSTER: The election before, Berlusconi was so able to communicate the dream. Now he has to communicate results. And the results, I don't know, right or wrong, are not satisfactory for the majority of Italians. And now it is Prodi who is communicating the dreams.

VINCI: Defeat for Berlusconi would mean the end to Italy's longest serving government since World War II; but most importantly, some observers say an end to his political career. Legal troubles he managed to keep at bay while in office could come back to haunt him.

PAUL GINSBORG, HISTORIAN: I think Mr. Berlusconi is fighting for his life. He's facing not the old charges, but fresh charges, and that's absolutely crucial to understand. And, therefore, he's fighting for his life in that way. He's still not safe.

VINCI: Prodi allies have also indicated they would press ahead with new legislation on the conflict of interest, suggesting Berlusconi would not be allowed to remain in politics as an opposition leader unless he gets rid of his vast media interests.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

And these are live pictures outside the headquarters of Mr. Romano Prodi in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in downtown Rome. We do see there some hard-core supporters still waving some flags despite the fact that the mood there is not as upbeat as it was earlier today.

We witnessed a change, if you want, in the mood earlier today. We were expecting -- these supporters were expecting Mr. Romano Prodi to show up there and to share what was looked at as a victory for him. Of course, these results trickling in throughout the day, shifting certainly against Mr. Romano Prodi.

This was an election that, throughout the campaign and throughout the opinion polls, was an election that the center left coalition was expected to win. So in some way, in some way tonight Mr. Berlusconi has at least won one thing and that is that he will make it a lot harder for him to be sent home.

At the same time, no matter who will emerge as the winner tonight, it looks like the prime minister will have a razor-thin majority, not enough, certainly, to pass the kind of tough legislation needed in this country.

I think, Jonathan, tonight, in Italy, everyone perhaps lost.

MANN: Alessio, the story right now is the numbers. Just to go over them once again, less than a percentage point separates the two sides in the Senate, the upper house. And just over 1 percentage point separates them in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house.

When do we expect to see a final number that will resolve that?

VINCI: I think not before tomorrow, first of all. And the other thing, of course, is what will the numbers show?

If indeed it shows a hung parliament, then we're going to have a big crisis here, because this country is not prepared to form -- the politicians in this country are not prepared to form a grand coalition that resolved the impasse in Germany a few months ago.

At the same time, Jonathan, just in case you don't have enough political drama, in this country, this is a parliamentary election, of course. When the parliament convenes, it is the president of the republic who will chose the prime minister. Well, the current president's term ends next month and the new parliament was supposed to elect a new president who would eventually then select a new prime minister.

Now we're going to have perhaps a parliament perhaps that is hung, unable to elect a new president, and who will choose the prime minister? All of this remains to be seen in the coming days.

MANN: Has the president, has the prime minister, has the former prime minister trying to get reelected, have any of them spoken yet this evening?

VINCI: No. As I mentioned earlier, Romano Prodi was expected to speak earlier today when the opinion polls were giving him as a winner. We heard from his campaign manager saying he will not talk until the election results are clear and certain.

We have not heard from Mr. Berlusconi. However, we know that he traveled back to Rome. He was in Milan earlier this evening. He arrived here in Rome. And we have not heard from Carlo Ciampi, the president of the Italian Republic, who tonight is going to be a very worried man, because he is the person who actually said that he did not want to be the one choosing the prime minister. He wanted a new parliament to elect the new president and leave it up to him to choose who Italy's next prime minister should be.

MANN: Alessio Vinci, our Rome bureau chief, thanks very much. We may be talking again before long.

Alessio alluded to it very briefly, the issue right now the possibility of a hung parliament. There are two houses of the Italian parliament and they are elected differently. A government needs the support of both of them to take power and to pass laws.

While we wait for final numbers, it is still possible that each of the two competing coalitions could win one each. In the Chamber of Deputies the coalition that wins the most votes, even by a small margin, will automatically be awarded a clear majority, 340 seats in the 630-seat chamber. We're still waiting for that race to end, while in the 315-seat Senate, the seats are determined differently. Not by the national totals, but region by region. The winning coalition in each region is to be awarded at least 55 percent of that region's seats in the chamber, so individual regions, no matter who wins them, are very important.

Berlusconi's accomplishments as prime minister include one that time makes it easy to overlook. He is the longest serving premiere in more than 50 years. Italy used to have a revolving-door system of government, 59 governments since World War II.

Another Berlusconi win would just extend the streak, but Romano Prodi would have to start essentially from scratch, not only assembling a union coalition but working to keep it together. Oddly enough, Prodi doesn't lead a party of his own, but was chosen to lead the others. The largest group that supports him are the Democrats of the Left, successors to the Italian Communist Party. There are other Communist parties in the union as well.

Then there is the moderate Daisy, Democracy is Freedom Party, which includes many former Christian Democrats. And then the Green Party, and smaller parties like Italy of Values, a populist anti-corruption movement.

How well they'll work together, how long they'll stay together, is anyone's guess if they are asked to govern.

About 47 million Italians were eligible to vote, which means there were just as many reasons that things went one way or another at the ballot box.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I voted for Berlusconi because he has done a lot for me. He has raised my pension. He has helped me to get a house. That is something, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I hope the Italians voted with this conscience, according to their values, because we want an Italy that believes in the values that persist in the future, family values and values of freedom of justice, peace and also of solidarity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Yes, absolutely. I'm expecting a change, because if not, I will have to leave Italy. I cannot imagine many of my fellow citizens would not like to change things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MANN: A lot of voters put their mouth where their money is. In some ways, this election was a referendum about Silvio Berlusconi, but the economy was the single biggest real issue in the vote.

The candidates each had their own ideas on how to give taxpayers, for example, a better deal, Berlusconi promising to abolish a homeowner's property tax, Prodi vowing to cut payroll taxes to create more jobs. And we're still trying to find out who in fact convinced more of their people.

But with the issues on the table and the voters having spoken their minds, what does it mean for Italy? Politics or paralysis? More in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: It was a pretty crude campaign that featured one suddenly infamous phrase. In a fit of pique, Prime Minister Berlusconi used a particularly rude reference to male anatomy to describe the Italians who might vote against him. An activist entrepreneur printed up t-shirts. Another opponent created a Web site where people proudly proclaimed themselves something we wouldn't want to translate on TV.

Welcome back.

No two candidates could be more different than Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi. Berlusconi has been officially honored as a knight by Italy's president and he's known as a result as (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Prodi, a less dramatic or dashing figure, to say the least, is sometimes known unofficially as the mortadella (ph), which is to say the sausage.

Italians have made their choice. We're still waiting to see how it will play out. But joining us now to talk about where this might take the country is John Glenn, director of foreign policy at the German Marshall Fund.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Earlier today we were comparing this to an opera. Now it looks like a soap opera that just doesn't end. What are your thoughts as you see this?

JOHN GLENN, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND: Well, as we've heard, it was a raucous election campaign, and it looks like the final result, it's going to be a nail biter.

Let's review why this election was important. I think it was important both for Europe as a whole as well as for Italy. Ever since the failure of the constitutional referendum on the E.U. in June and in May in the Netherlands, the European Union as a whole has kind of been on pause and a moment of reflection. And this, like the German elections last fall, has been an attempt to hopefully provide new life, breathe new vision into where Europe would be going.

If Romano Prodi wins, one would expect that a former president of the European Commission would adopt a very pro-E.U. stance and would really become a very strong figure on the European scene. Whereas Silvio Berlusconi has been much more cautious.

MANN: When George Bush and Al Gore fought to that very bitterly ended election, we saw the United States divided into red states and blue states. People took that kind of 50/50 split as evidence of a very profound cleavage, a very profound problem in this country.

Is that the case in Italy? Or was this just people changing their minds or disagreeing?

GLENN: Well, I think Italy is divided. Many say that really there are three Italy's, and this is the challenge for whoever wins.

There is the Italy of the north, which is the rich, the prosperous, the Italy of Milan, of fashion. There is the Italy of the center, which is the Italy of Tuscany, of Florence and Bologna, which does very well and has a lot of small manufacturers that produce leather goods, things that Italy has been famous for. And then there is the south, south of Rome, which indeed is very poor, full of pensioners, and indeed I think it is three Italy's that whoever wins this election is going to have to deal with.

But it looks like the prospects forward are really made more difficult by the bitterness and by the divisions that we're likely to see here.

MANN: Is this really the tale of Berlusconi losing his magic, losing his hold on the country?

GLENN: Silvio Berlusconi has managed to charm Italian voters by his sort of flair for saying the ridiculous. You saw the t-shirts that were produced in response to one of them. He's the one who has declared about the Chinese threat to Italian manufacturing that the Chinese Communists eat their babies. And this I think in fact seems sort of charming in a kind of unprofessional, unboring way to some Italians, although it tends to alienate those who see Italy from the outside.

It's Romano Prodi who comes in and says he wants to offer a serious Italy, a professorial approach to politics again, but it's not as exciting, it's not as unpredictable. It's not as uncertain and in some ways maybe as fun.

MANN: Well, the fun now is going to last for a couple of days while we figure out who actually is going to form a government. How hard is it going to be to form the government? Will the center right coalition return much the way it was if it's reelected? Is the center left going to have an easy time figuring out how they're going to staff their positions?

GLENN: Yes, that's absolutely right. One of the differences about this election is for the first time voters, but also the victors of this party, are really divided into two blocks.

In the past, there were multiple parties, and it was really kind of the classic parliamentary horse-trading game of who would get enough of the percentage of the votes to form a government.

But this time, whoever wins will receive a kind of a top-up of the electoral seats in the lower house of parliament that will give them a clear majority. Unfortunately, if all they have is that minimum plus the top-up, any government that comes in is going to be very weak. And the question is really how long it will last.

MANN: Is another election inevitable, do you think, given that one may be needed almost right away if it's a hung parliament and another may be needed even if there is a successful conclusion just to shore up support?

GLENN: It's an ugly prospect. Italy is not in any place right now where I think many people are prepared to go on with more election campaigning.

You can almost imagine that it really would have to be a kind of cooling off period. Perhaps the technocratic government alternative that was mentioned earlier in your program, the idea that you bring in someone that isn't a political person but who can sort of lead Italy forward on a narrowly agreed set of topics. Because the grand coalition option, that option that Germany has successfully pursued, it just seems impossible if you put Silvio Berlusconi and Romano Prodi in the same room.

MANN: Let me bring you back to a comparison in the United States, which was, of course, the debacle in Florida with the hanging chads.

GLENN: Sure.

MANN: Armies of attorneys went to work because so much was at stake for the American political establishment.

GLENN: Right.

MANN: There is a lot at stake for the Italian political establishment. When the votes are counted, do you think everyone will go home contented with the result? Or could this be a constitutional or just a legal battle that would drag on?

GLENN: I fear that is very likely. As we heard earlier, Silvio Berlusconi is really fighting not only for his political life as prime minister but many fear for his ability to avoid the kinds of charges and corruption and to stay out of jail.

And so I think there is no way that we're going to see a gracious loser here. I think there is no way we're going to see a kind of back to business as usual, everybody sort of coming back home and agreeing to put their differences aside.

I think this will go down to final votes being counted. I hope not hanging chads or butterfly ballots, but we'll have to see what we find in the Italian version. It makes me wonder where the Italian Florida will prove to be.

But one last point. One of the interesting twists on this is for the first time, Italians have been able to vote in an election.

MANN: If they get six seats, they may decide the election. We'll have to talk about that another time.

GLENN: Absolutely. Thank you.

MANN: John Glenn of the German Marshall Fund.

We take a break now. When we come back, some Italian voters far from home. Not the ones we were just talking about, but well worth some attention.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Over and out. The Berlusconi government supported the invasion of Iraq and contributed 3,000 troops. But facing enormous domestic pressure, it promised to withdraw the forces by the end of 2006 and its opponents promised they would do it as fast or faster.

Welcome back.

Italy has had a painful experience in Iraq, but its casualties have been lower than the United States, the United Kingdom or Iraqi forces have suffered; 26 of its men have been killed there.

The deployment is deeply unpopular and now it is scheduled, as I mentioned, to come to an end.

Earlier we got in touch with Christopher Dickey of "Newsweek" magazine to talk about politics and foreign policy and whether the war in Iraq was a factor in Italy's vote.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, "NEWSWEEK": Ultimately, it wasn't. I talked to Romano Prodi early in the campaign, actually late last year, when it still seemed like it might be an issue, and he already realized it had been diffused by Berlusconi, when Berlusconi announced that the troops would be coming back by the end of 2006.

And I interviewed Berlusconi in February and he not only said he thought it was a good idea to take his own troops out, he gave a little advice to George W. Bush and said maybe the United States should think about setting a deadline to pull its troops out as well.

So, basically, it's a dead issue here in Italy.

MANN: Do both coalitions, do both leaders represent the same kind of Italy on the world stage?

DICKEY: No, they don't.

Berlusconi is very, very, pro-American. Whatever he was saying about the troops, I think he sincerely meant it. He has been a very good friend to President Bush and a very, very loyal ally not just of the United States but very specifically of the Bush administration.

Romano Prodi is much more a European. He was the president of the European Commission and he sees himself much more in the mold of a man who is building Europe, if not as an alternative to American power, at least as an equal partner.

Berlusconi was playing a game where essentially he was trying to be America's friend in Europe, a little bit like the Tony Blair of the Mediterranean, if you will. No matter what the French or the Germans might go off and do. So he was often at odds with the rest of Europe.

Prodi wants to work with Europe, and that's really a big difference.

MANN: I'd like to go back to something you mentioned earlier, which is the whole problem or absence of strong leadership. In whatever direction, is strong leadership as opposed to weak leadership a big variable right now?

DICKEY: Well, it is a big variable and the critical questions are economic here. Italy, notwithstanding the fact that it's had a billionaire businessman as president for the last five years, has not made the kinds of structural reforms that, say, a Margaret Thatcher made in England or Ronald Reagan made in the United States.

And as a result, this economy is lagging way behind every other, even the German and the French and British, of course, economies in Europe. To move ahead, it needs to change the way business is done, and it needs to basically take a lot of painful decisions that are hard for any Italian government to follow through on.

But an Italian government that really doesn't have support in either - - clear support in either house, or where you have divided houses of parliament is one that just cannot do what needs to be done on the economic front, the foreign affairs front or really anywhere else. We'll be headed for a period of political paralysis here for months to come.

MANN: Italians will certainly notice that, but let me ask you one last question. Will people outside of Italy notice it?

DICKEY: Well, I think they will to the extent that, especially on the economic front, Italy is part of the euro zone. If you have this country that can't get its economic act together, it's trying to exist way outside the parameters, the economic parameters set for being a member of the euro, then all of the sudden it puts a strain on the entire institution and on the entire European Union in fact.

So, yes, I think certainly others in Europe will take note and I think President Bush will be looking at one of his closest allies now just trying to save his political career anyway he can, and that's not good for the particular alliance that exists between Italy and the United States.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: Christopher Dickey, of "Newsweek."

That's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann.

END

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