CONSERVATIVE coalition wins absolute majority in both Italian chambers

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ROME (AP) _ Billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has won an absolute majority in both houses of the Italian Parliament, according to final, official returns released Tuesday.

His conservative coalition will have 368 seats in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies and 177 in the 324-person Senate.

The center-left coalition, ousted after five years in power, will have 250 seats in the Chamber and 128 in the Senate.

Although the Berlusconi alliance won big overall, one of its members, the anti-immigrant Northern League emerged from Sunday's election weakened.

It failed to attract at least 4 percent of the national vote, which would have given it extra seats under Italy's system of partial proportional representation.

The League held steady in the Senate at 17 seats, but fell from 47 to 30 seats in the Chamber. Even without the League, Berlusconi enjoys a majority in the new Chamber.

Basking in victory, Berlusconi returned to the familiar Italian airwaves to accept his electoral victory, pledging that he would keep his ``contract'' to cut taxes and create more than a million jobs _ or else would leave politics at the end of Parliament's five-year term.

Appearing on state television Monday night against a backdrop of gilt-framed oil paintings and antiques at his Milan villa, Berlusconi said he would need only a short time to form a government.

``I am convinced that you all feel the need for a government that governs and for a premier who speaks less and works more and better,'' Berlusconi said, reading from a prepared statement.

His center-left challenger, Francesco Rutelli, conceded defeat hours earlier, ending a campaign that grew increasingly bitter as questions mounted about Berlusconi's possible conflicts of interest, his legal battles, and choice of right-wing partners.

The same questions explained the mixed reaction to Berlusconi's victory in Europe, where right-wing forces welcomed a new conservative government but left-leaning leaders were far more cautious.

``We are watching closely what this government will be and what it will do,'' said French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a Socialist.

President Bush congratulated Berlusconi and the State Department said Washington hoped to ``enjoy a cooperative and fruitful relationship'' with his government, Italy's 59th since World War II.

A U.S. official said the United States had worked well with Berlusconi's first government, in 1994. That government fell after seven months when the allied Northern League pulled out of the coalition.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia party also won decisively in the Milan mayoral race, but races for mayor in other big cities, such as Rome and Naples, appeared headed for runoffs.

The vote was marred by long lines that kept some polling stations open until 5 a.m. _ seven hours after they were to have closed. Irate voters tore up their ballots and toppled ballot boxes or just went home.

Interior Minister Enzo Bianco, who was blamed for the debacle, apologized and ordered an investigation. Italian media said the main reason for the lines was obvious: the number of polling stations was reduced to cut costs.

One of Italy's wealthiest men, Berlusconi, 64, presides over a media and financial empire worth $12 billion. It includes Italy's three main private TV stations, film and advertising companies, publishing, investment and insurance concerns, real estate and a Milan soccer team.

He liberally used his own Mediaset network and state TV during the campaign, appearing on screen before a backdrop emblazoned with his party's logo to discuss the topics of the day.

Last week, he went on state television to sign a symbolic ``contract'' with Italians, promising to cut taxes, create 1.5 million jobs, increase pension payments and build new public works projects.

``This is the commitment I have made and I will work to keep it,'' he said Monday, reaffirming the pledge.

Rome newsstand owner Giuseppe Latini said that kind of a promise was convincing. ``Other politicians wouldn't do that,'' he said.

But Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome, said the media tycoon had to make good on another promise, to resolve what he called the ``explosive'' conflict-of-interest issue.

Berlusconi has promised to propose a law regulating conflict of interest within 100 days of becoming premier. But he has rejected calls to sell any of his assets.

Rutelli has also said Italians would pay dearly for some of Berlusconi's other promises, such as raising pensions, and has predicted that the country might no longer qualify to participate in the European Union's common currency if economic austerity isn't the rule.