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Italy

Fresh Italian election predictions point to split houses

Italian election forecasts have yielded conflicting information, currently threatening political stalemate. While Pier Luigi Bersani's center-left looks strong in the lower house, the center-right could take the Senate.

Italian public broadcaster RAI TV released parliamentary election predictions on Monday evening, suggesting that different sides might dominate the upper and lower houses of parliament - raising the possibility of political deadlock or even repeat elections.

Earlier projections had pointed to a clear advantage for the center-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the upper house, the Senate.

RAI predictions concurred that Bersani was on course to be the strongest player in the lower house, albeit by a meager 0.5 percent, but suggested that the center-right coalition of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could take the most Senate seats.

Whichever party wins the national vote is guaranteed 54 percent of seats in the Chamber under Italian electoral law, but seats in the Senate are allocated on a regional basis with no guaranteed majority for the largest party.

RAI projected that Berlusconi's alliance could claim 123 seats in the Senate - still short of the 158 that would represent a simple majority - compared to 104 for Bersani's bloc. Berlusconi, always struggling in the polls in the vote's buildup despite making major late gains, had said he was aiming to secure sufficient Senate control to paralyze a left-leaning government.

Voting habits often change from house to house owing to voting restrictions. Italians must be 18 years old to cast votes for the Chamber; they must be 25 to vote for Senators.

Coalition hopes looking slim, too

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti, at the head of a centrist coalition seen as a potential ally for Bersani, was predicted to secure just 19 seats in the upper house - seemingly scuppering Bersani's hopes of outgunning Berlusconi by teaming up with Monti.

The new 5-Star Movement, spearheaded by its founder and "spokesman" Pepe Grillo, looked set for 65 Senate seats, making it comfortably the third power. Grillo, a former comedian, campaigned on an anti-establishment platform, even suggesting a referendum on Italian membership of the European single currency. Grillo had said during the campaign that his party did not intend to ally with any of the established groups, and would stay in opposition rather than joining any coalition.

The two houses of parliament in Italy have equal legislative power, meaning political gridlock is a possibility that might spark another election.

Speaking to RAI when the latest projections were announced, the deputy secretary of the center-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta, feared another round of voting.

"If things stand as they are, the next parliament will be ungovernable," Letta said. "A new electoral law will be done immediately and we will go back to the polls." Letta's Democratic Party is the largest group within the center-left alliance.

Partial official results did little to shed light on the situation. They are counted region-by-region in Italy, meaning that geographical voting tendencies often lead to large swings as the tallying process progresses.

Final, definitive results in the eurozone's third-largest economy are expected late on Monday. According to figures published earlier in February by the European Commission, Italy's national debt was equivalent to 127.1 percent of annual economic output at the end of 2012. That percentage figure is the second worst within the eurozone, behind Greece.

msh/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)