Italian polls never used to be so closely fought, so ideologically polarised like the US presidential polls of 2004 and 2000. But that was before the era of Silvio Berlusconi, the centre-right politician and self-made billionaire who came into last week’s election as Italy’s longest continuously serving PM since World War II.

But Berlusconi has probably lost to Romano Prodi, a centre-left politician and economist. Prodi is Berlusconi’s opposite in almost every way, from his radically unflamboyant demeanour to his governmental platform. Out of nearly 40 million votes cast, barely 25,000 separated the two sides. Berlusconi has yet to concede defeat and is calling for a recount. So is Italy now doomed to five years of deadlock? Probably not. If the current numbers hold, Prodi seems assured of a working majority, provided he can keep together his fractious centre-left coalition. But the slimness of that majority will make it harder for the new government to push through reforms that Italy badly needs to revive its flagging economy.

Berlusconi’s failure to deliver on his own promises of translating his business success into a national economic revival cost him re-election. What remains to be seen is whether Prodi

can persuade his political allies to provide him with the parliamentary support he will need.