Exit Polls Show Berlusconi Trailing in Elections

Exit polls Monday showed conservative Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi trailing center-left challenger Romano Prodi in parliamentary elections.

The Nexus poll indicated that Prodi's coalition received between 50 and 54 percent of the vote in both the upper and lower chambers of parliament, while Berlusconi's coalition received 45-49 percent. State-run RAI television and Berlusconi's Mediaset channels said the poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

A second exit poll showed Prodi's coalition defeating Berlusconi's in both houses of parliament.

Italians were delivering a verdict on Berlusconi, the billionaire media mogul who is the longest-serving premier since World War II but has failed to jump-start a flat economy during his tenure.

A staunch U.S. ally, Berlusconi, 69, founded a business empire that expanded to include Italy's main private TV networks, the Milan soccer team, as well as publishing, advertising and insurance interests.

He was battling to capture his third premiership with a center-right bloc — an often squabbling coalition of his Forza Italia party, the former neo-fascist National Alliance, pro-Vatican forces and the anti-immigrant Northern League.

Prodi, 66, was making his comeback bid with a potentially unwieldy coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, Greens, liberals, former Communists and Communists. The economics professor and former European Union chief defeated Berlusconi for the premiership in 1996.

One potential issue — Iraq — was largely deflated before the campaign began, when Berlusconi announced that Italy's troops there would be withdrawn by year's end.

Berlusconi, who won the premiership in 1994 and 2001, strongly supported President Bush despite fierce public opposition to the war.

Prodi has said he would bring troops home as soon as possible, security conditions permitting.

While Italians were mainly preoccupied by economic worries, the candidates seemed to toss more insults at each other than offer comprehensive recipes for turning around the economy.

Berlusconi promised to abolish a homeowner's property tax, while Prodi said he would revive an inheritance tax abolished by Berlusconi, but only for the richest. He also promised to cut payroll taxes to try to spur hiring.

Critics contended that Berlusconi, instead of helping the economy, used his comfortable majority in Parliament to push through laws protecting his business interests and helping him in his years of judicial woes. Berlusconi contends that the laws benefit all Italians and that he has been targeted by left-leaning prosecutors.

Berlusconi depicted Prodi as a front-man for Communists in a campaign to damage Italian democracy.

Italians were voting under a proportional system, thanks to a law pushed through by Berlusconi's government to increase the chances his tinier allies would win seats.

No violence was reported in voting Sunday, the first day of balloting, but a few voters at scattered polling stations demanded — some of them successfully — that crucifixes be removed from the public schools hosting the balloting, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.

In a hamlet near the town of Terni in central Italy, the head of the polling station had the crucifix removed before voters arrived, prompting protests from conservatives, ANSA said.