A dramatic shift in Italian vote projections Monday indicated Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi may defy all predictions and cling to power in both houses of parliament.
It's an extremely close race between Prodi and Berlusconi
If borne out in the full count, it would be a stunning reversal of fortune for opposition leader Romano Prodi, whose center-left Union coalition had been ahead in exit polls and early partial results.
With the picture changing by the hour, thousands of Prodi supporters who had flocked to his campaign headquarters in anticipation of a victory were forced to put celebrations on hold.
Earlier, the opposition backers had voiced both jubilation and relief at indications of an end to Berlusconi's flamboyant five-year reign. Opposition officials, though, had been more careful.
"We're still very cautious, but if these indications are confirmed, that would mean that Italy had decided to turn the page and begin a new era," said a spokesman at Prodi's headquarters.
Within hours, the vote projections had lurched in the prime minister's favor. Berlusconi, Italy's richest man, returned to Rome from his mansion in Arcore, outside Milan, in the afternoon, but refrained from making any comments.
A Nexus projection at 8 p.m. local time for Italian state television showed Berlusconi's House of Freedoms alliance would take the majority of seats in the race for the Senate.
Majority needed in both houses
Italians had two days to vote
Based on the projection made with nearly nine-tenths of the votes counted, Berlusconi's House of Freedoms would take 158 seats in the upper house Senate against 152 for the Union.
That was followed by another projection showing Berlusconi edging in front by 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent in the lower house Chamber of Deputies. Vote counting continued into the night.
Neither of the rival coalitions would be able to govern without a majority in both houses.
"You can't say that the leftist Union has a majority to govern," said Andrea Ronchi of the National Alliance, a key ally of Berlusconi. "We are neck and neck in the Senate, and it's a great result."
Vote counting to continue throughout night
Campaigning took on nasty tones
Partial results announced earlier in the evening, based on a smaller sample of about one-sixth of the vote, gave 54.2 percent to Prodi's center-left and 45.2 percent to Berlusconi's House of Freedoms in the lower house.
At the time, Senator Paolo Guzzanti of the prime minister's Forza Italia party appeared to have given up hope.
"Our coalition has lost the elections," he told AFP. "We expected something like this because we've lost every (local) election since 2001."
First official results from the two-day election were due late Monday, but counting was going more slowly than expected as darkness fell over Rome.