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REFILE-Berlusconi says "No" to Italian election delay

(Refiles to remove garble in quote in second paragraph)

“We hope -- and we think that’s what will happen -- that after these consultations the head of state will call elections immediately, because the country quickly needs an efficient government to solve its grave problems,” he said.

Berlusconi, who has been prime minister twice, and his main conservative ally Gianfranco Fini met Senate speaker Franco Marini on Monday for the final stage of talks requested by the president to seek cross-party support for electoral reform.

If successful, President Giorgio Napolitano wanted Marini to form an interim government which would oversee such changes.

But the centre right, sensing a quick return to power after centre-left leader Romano Prodi resigned on Jan.24, has dug in its heels and said reform can wait.

Prodi seemed pessimistic about the chances of success for 74-year-old Marini, a Catholic centre-leftist with broad appeal who expects to report back to Napolitano early this week.

“We’re all behind Marini’s efforts but Berlusconi’s position will be decisive,” said Prodi, now caretaker prime minister. “So far he has been deeply negative and keeps urging elections now.”

In a country that has had on average a government a year for the last six decades, business leaders pleaded for stability following Prodi’s resignation after just 20 months in office.

Industry chief Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who favours an electoral reform to improve voting laws, urged an end to “years of rivalry and ungovernability so that we can guarantee growth, because we grow less than any other European country”.

Many economists also favour electoral reform, warning that another government elected under current rules will prove just as unstable as Prodi’s.

POISON PILL

Prodi quit after constant arguing in his nine-party alliance coalition came to a head with the defection of a small Catholic party, which erased his tiny majority in the Senate. He risked a confidence vote there and lost, forcing him to step down.

The Prodi government’s inherent instability resulted largely from voting rules introduced by Berlusconi in 2005. Critics say the rules were a “poison pill” for Prodi, who won a 2006 election but was landed with an impossibly thin Senate majority.

Even the right-wing senator who drew up that reform called it “rubbish” and Berlusconi recently held talks with Prodi’s successor as the head of the main centre-left Democratic Party, Rome’s Mayor Walter Veltroni, about possible changes.

But when Prodi’s government collapsed, Berlusconi sensed a quick win and said electoral reform would have to wait.

The media tycoon, in mourning for the death of his 97-year-old mother on Sunday, told reporters after seeing Marini that current voting laws worked well in 2006, when he lost by the narrowest margin in modern Italian history.

Berlusconi said opinion polls estimated he had a lead over the centre left of between 10 and 16 points.

Veltroni believes the PD -- which meets Marini after the two right-wing parties -- can only put up a fight by running alone, without Prodi’s bickering Catholic and communist allies. That depends on first changing voting rules which favour coalitions.

Il Giornale newspaper -- owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo -- even speculated about an electoral pact between the man known as “Il Cavaliere” (the Knight) and Veltroni. Berlusconi said this was a “utopian” fantasy. (Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi)

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