Presumably one reason for closing the polls in Italy at the unusual
time of 3pm on Monday (the second day of voting) was for the
convenience of the media: TV networks could devote the afternoon to
election programming, with the idea of having it all wrapped up by the
evening news.

That’s not how it worked out. It started out according to plan, as the
exit polls – or, in Italian, “exit poll” – confidently predicted
victory for The Union, Romano Prodi’s centre-left coalition. Comment
proceeded on that basis for a couple of hours, and then the figures
started to tell a different story.

The problem appeared first in the upper house, the Senate, with
projections showing a clear but narrow majority for Silvio Berlusconi’s
House of Liberties – opening the prospect of parliamentary deadlock.
My Italian wasn’t good enough to follow most of the pontificating, but
I can read numbers, and Antony Green would be comprehensible on the ABC
even if he were speaking Italian.

As Prodi put off his plans to officially claim victory, the projections
started to swing around for the Chamber of Deputies as well. By late
evening, although the official figures lagged behind, it looked as if
Berlusconi might seize a wafer-thin lead in the popular vote – which
would give him a clear majority, since the system gives an extra
weighting to the majority coalition. The Senate, elected region by
region, showed a majority of 155-154 for House of Liberties, but there
are also six senators elected by overseas voters and seven life
senators, and the centre-left was expected to hold the lead with both
categories, giving it a slender advantage.

That’s still how things stood when Tuesday morning’s newspapers were
published, with the country divided 50-50. By the morning news on
television, however, the official count had been completed and Prodi’s
Union had hung on with a majority of 25,000 votes, or 0.1%. Later in
the morning, Prodi claimed victory, promising (as people invariably do
in these circumstances) to govern for all Italians. He said he was
waiting to hear from Berlusconi to concede defeat: “what happens in
modern democracies”, as he tartly put it.

He’s still waiting. Late Tuesday, the Interior Ministry confirmed that
The Union had won four of the six overseas senate seats, delivering it
a majority. But Berlusconi emerged from silence to demand a recount,
saying “no one can claim victory at this point”. It is still unclear
whether he will stay on as opposition leader.

In reality, although 25,000 votes is a tiny percentage, it’s far too
many to be changed by a recount unless there is some systematic
problem. (Compare the 2000 US election, where the recount that could
have defeated George Bush involved a margin of only a couple of hundred
votes.) There seems no doubt that Prodi has won fair and square.
Granted there is something absurd in deciding the fate of a major
country by such a margin, but it is less absurd to award it to the
winner than the loser.

In short, it’s an election that has satisfied no-one: the right feels
cheated, the left has much less of a mandate than it expected, and the
commentators are agonising over a divided country. But the biggest
losers are the exit polls – which after their earlier failure in the
Palestinian territories are not having a good year.