The center-left coalition headed by Romano Prodi has apparently won the Italian elections by a slim margin of 20,000 votes out of 40 million votes cast. It won a narrow majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and an even narrower majority in the Senate, thanks to the vote from Italians living abroad. Winning both houses will give the “Union” coalition additional seats, increasing its majority.

Prodi, leader of the center-left and likely new premier, speaking to an overflow crowd on election night, said his government would place “Europe and peace at the center of its program.” He added that his government would give priority to bridging the political fracturing that has so divided the nation under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul and close ally of President George Bush on the Iraq war, used anticommunism as a major weapon in his campaign. Exploiting his strong majority in Parliament over the past 12 years, he ripped at the Italian Constitution and its worker rights provisions, which were written after World War II by an anti-fascist coalition of parties. The center-left coalition has promised to restore these rights.

Both of Italy’s communist parties increased their vote in this election in comparison with 2001. Communist Refoundation (Rifondazione) increased its vote from 5 percent to nearly 6 percent in the lower house, and the vote for the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI) increased from 1.7 percent to 2.3 percent. The PdCI formed a voting bloc with the Green Party in the Senate, although it fell short of winning a seat there.

Both Rifondazione and PdCI aligned with the center-left coalition, even though its program in defense of worker rights is more limited than theirs. The two parties seek a return to the “sliding scale,” an automatic cost of living wage increase pegged to the rate of inflation. As a first step, they were successful in getting the Union program to include this demand for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

They argued that unity with the more moderate parties was essential to defeat the Bush-like Berlusconi and his allies, which include neofascist elements. This strategy was a change for Rifondazione, which had broken away from the center-left in previous elections, and may have tipped the balance in favor of the Union.

Oliviero Diliberto, the PdCI leader, said his party was supportive of the Union program, but the opportunity to raise more progressive issues would exist under the new government.

The ultra-right-wing House of Freedom coalition is contesting the vote and asking for a recount. Paolo Bonaiuti, a spokesperson for Berlusconi, claims half a million votes should be disqualified and that his candidate’s party won the Senate. If that were the case, Italy would probably have a caretaker government until new elections are held.