PARIS (Reuters) - Italy's fashion and financial capital Milan won the race on Monday to host the 2015 Universal Exposition, a welcome victory for a country that has been buffeted by a food scandal and political feuding.
Officials for the Paris-based International Bureau of Exhibitions (BIE) said Milan defeated the western Turkish city of Izmir by 86 votes to 65, dashing Turkish hopes of hosting the world's biggest fair for the first time.
Milan triumphed despite ailing flag carrier Alitalia's decision to slash flights at the northern city's Malpensa airport under a survival plan and an international scare over mozzarella cheese potentially tainted with cancer-causing dioxin.
The decision in favor of Milan, home of Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire head of Italy's centre-right opposition, comes just two weeks ahead of a snap national election.
But members of the centre-left government rallied behind the bid, which they said was beyond party political controversies.
"It shows that when Italy pulls together and puts its best energy to work it can succeed," Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said after the secret vote. "It's an important victory for Italy because the Expo is important."
Milan brought a heavyweight team to Paris to push its case, with Prime Minister Romano Prodi flanked by leading figures from the worlds of arts, sport and international politics.
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore spoke up in favor of the project, saying Milan deserved support for striving to become one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the world.
Milan mayor Letizia Moratti said her city would use the event to promote the basic human right to a safe and balanced diet.
Milan organizers have promised 4.1 billion euros ($6.47 billion) in infrastructure and other investments for their fair. They estimate the event will draw 30 million visitors to the city of 1.3 million people.
But Moratti said Milan would not spend money to create a lasting landmark of the fair as many other cities have done. Instead it would develop a centre for sustainable development to create resources for the rest of the world.
"We are a lucky city and we know we owe something to places that are less lucky than us," she said.
"I am happy because in 2015 we will be a great city," said a 12-year-old Peruvian boy amid the hundreds of flag-waving school children who watched the announcement on a big screen outdoors in downtown Milan.
"We are very happy for the selection," said pensioner Marta Osella. "And now begins the important part -- I hope that Milan reassess itself and returns to being what it used to be when we were young."
Izmir had promised to promote health care had it won the nod and its bid was supported by a loud and raucous contingent, some of whom were in tears when they found out the bid had failed.
Hosting the Expo can either make or break a city's reputation. The Paris world fair of 1889 memorably included the creation of the Eiffel Tower, while Spain's Seville put itself on the international travel map with its Expo in 1992.
But the Hanover Expo of 2000, billed as the biggest and best world fair ever, drew media ridicule and outraged taxpayers in Germany after running up losses of more than $1 billion.
The next world Expo will be staged in Shanghai in 2010.
Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Silvia Molteni in Milan