But when the Interior Ministry's final tally for the lower house of parliament came in early today, former European Commission President Prodi emerged to claim victory by the slimmest of margins.
The final returns showed Prodi's center-left coalition of Catholics, social democrats, communists, and environmentalists winning the Chamber of Deputies by one-10th of a percentage point -- with 49.8 percent versus 49.7 percent for the Berlusconi camp. Under Italian electoral law, 55 percent of seats are awarded to the winner regardless of the margin of victory, giving Prodi's group 340 seats in the 630-member lower house.
Demands For Recount
However, the margin of victory in the chamber came down to 25,000 votes. Berlusconi himself has not yet commented on the results, but his allies have called for a recount of up to 500,000 spoiled ballots.
"I think it's in everyone's interest that there be some kind of revision [of the votes]," outgoing Minister for Regional Affairs Enrico La Loggia said. "Above all, we owe it to Italians, so many Italians who came out to vote."
A recount could unleash political chaos, evoking the 2000 U.S. presidential election, which ended in a bitter recount battle in Florida. For now, however, all eyes are on the vote count for the upper house, the Senate.
Overseas Votes Provide Margin
A majority is needed in both houses of parliament to form a government, and official returns gave Berlusconi's conservatives a one-seat advantage in the Senate, with 155 seats to Prodi's 154.
However, Prodi's allies claimed victory today in votes cast by Italians living overseas for six seats in the Senate. Center-left parliamentarian Franco Danieli told a news conference in Rome that Prodi's forces had won four of those six seats.
"The situation is that the center-left has 154 seats [in the Senate], the center-right has 155 seats," Danieli said. "With the four seats that we have won abroad, we will have 158 seats compared to 156 for the center-right. It's clearly a razor-thin majority, and we also have to add in the [unelected six] senators-for-life, who I imagine will want to express their own votes, as after all they have always done."
Pyrrhic Victory For Prodi?
Putting a brave face on his narrow victory, Prodi insisted early today that his future government could last the length of its mandate, saying, "We will govern united for five years."
But center-right Minister La Loggia predicted that Prodi's victory would be short-lived. "If the Senate results from abroad are confirmed, it seems to me it will be a Pyrrhic victory," he said. "Essentially it's a stalemate and the country is split in half."
Analysts agreed that a governing majority will be hard to maintain. "There's a governing problem here, because at the very least it will be very hard to maintain the majority in the Senate," said Jean-Pierre Darnis from Rome's Institute for International Affairs.
Berlusconi, a 69-year-old media mogul, was Italy's longest-serving prime minister since World War II. He was seeking to capture his third premiership with an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces, and the anti-immigrant Northern League.
Italy's economy has stagnated under Berlusconi, but analyst Darnis said he maintained his support among Italy's numerous small businessmen as well as northerners keen on gaining further autonomy from the central government in Rome.
"Despite the fact that Berlusconi did not achieve his goals [in his first term], many people voted for him again because they believe in the values of a smaller state, which cuts taxes and leaves more space and initiative to businesses, as well as to the regions," Darnis said.
Prodi himself has pledged to cut labor taxes and introduce economic reforms. But analysts say any bold measures will be hampered by demands from his communist coalition partners.
The next government is not expected to take office for at least a month.