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Prodi may be Italy's center-left candidate
Updated: 2005-10-17 09:17

Former Italian premier Romano Prodi appeared headed to a sweeping victory in his country's first nationwide primary Sunday to become the center-left's candidate to challenge conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi in next year's election.

The vote was marred, however, by the Mafia-style ambush killing of a local politician at a polling station in southern Italy.

Early results showed Prodi won 72 percent of the vote. Prodi's widely expected victory would set the stage for a race against Berlusconi, who is likely to remain at the helm of the conservatives for the mid-2006 vote. The two ran against each other in another election a decade ago, which Prodi won.

Prodi, also a former European Commission president, was up against six other candidates, who posed virtually no challenge to him. The veteran Communist leader Fausto Bertinotti came in second with 16 percent, according to the results, which were based on 59 percent of 10,000 polling stations reporting. Final returns were expected Monday morning.

Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi greets demonstrators gathered at Rome's Popolo square October 9, 2005
Italy's opposition leader Romano Prodi greets demonstrators gathered at Rome's Popolo square October 9, 2005.[Reuters]
Party officials said some 3 million people cast ballots in the primary vote, but added the figure was still not final. Turnout was higher than expected, officials said.

Prodi had hoped strong turnout would give him a mandate for control of a fragmented coalition.

"It's beyond our every dream," Prodi said of the turnout after polls closed. "We needed that. Italy needed that."

Organizers also billed the primary as a vote of protest against policies enacted by Berlusconi's government — especially a new electoral law recently rushed through Parliament and bitterly contested by the opposition.

In addition, Prodi has said he would replace Italian troops in Iraq with a civilian force if his center-left coalition wins the 2006 election. Italians were largely opposed to the war in Iraq and to Berlusconi's decision to send some 3,000 troops after the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003 to help with reconstruction.

The government is gradually pulling some of its contingent out of Iraq.

At a polling station in a downtown piazza in the capital, 71-year-old Alba Rossi lined up to vote for Prodi.

"The government must understand we are fed up," she said. "Above all, we don't want Berlusconi anymore."

Berlusconi's conservative government's popularity has been sagging recently amid economic troubles and infighting. Opinion polls show the center-left solidly ahead, even though recent ones indicate the gap between the two coalitions is narrowing.

On Sunday, Berlusconi said: "Prodi has only one way to win a vote: Have only center-left people go to the polls, just like he did today."

The center-left politician killed Sunday, 54-year-old Francesco Fortugno, was shot in the small town of Locri minutes after casting his ballot. The killing in the area plagued by organized crime drew condemnation from Prodi and other national leaders.

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