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Three weeks after losing a national election, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has finally conceded the vote. His decision to step down eliminates one headache for the winner, Mr. Romano Prodi, but it is not the most important challenge the prime minister-to-be faces.

Rather, Mr. Prodi must wrestle with a fractious coalition that could shatter at any moment — a prospect that was painfully clear during votes to select a president of the Senate, the upper house of the Italian Parliament. Political instability looms over Italy once again. Much-needed economic reform is unlikely and Mr. Berlusconi will do his best to exploit unhappiness and engineer his return to power.

Mr. Prodi, a former prime minister and former president of the European Commission, leads a center-left coalition that narrowly defeated Mr. Berlusconi in elections held last month. The margin of victory in the Senate races was razor-thin: less than 25,000 votes out of 38 million. Mr. Berlusconi alleged fraud and refused to concede defeat, even as his allies accepted the result. Some suggested that the prime minister’s language was designed to inflame public sentiment and delegitimize Mr. Prodi’s government. Sadly, he might not need any help on that front.

After a review by two separate courts, the tally was confirmed. The results gave Mr. Prodi’s coalition 158 of the Senate’s 315 elected seats; Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition claimed 156, and the last elected seat went to an independent candidate. In addition, there are seven senators for life, and they tend to lean to the left. In the lower house, Mr. Prodi has more breathing space: He has a 66-seat majority in the 630-seat Chamber of Deputies.

The narrowness of the election victory is not Mr. Prodi’s only concern. His coalition consists of nine parties, ranging from communists to Christian Democrats, and there is little that unites them besides an intense dislike of Mr. Berlusconi. Tensions were already on display last week as Mr. Prodi put forward his candidates to lead the two houses of Parliament.

The first test was in the House of Deputies, where Mr. Massimo D’Alema, leader of Democrats of the Left, the largest center-left party, and a former prime minister, squared off against Mr. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists. A crisis was averted when Mr. Prodi persuaded Mr. D’Alema to withdraw — recalling, no doubt, that Mr. Bertinotti brought about the collapse of Mr. Prodi’s government in 1998 when he withdrew his party’s support.

It was no easier in the Senate. There, Mr. Prodi’s candidate, Mr. Franco Marini, ran against Mr. Guilio Andreotti, a seven-time prime minister who is now a senator for life. Mr. Andreotti represents the very essence of the old Italian political order, with backroom deals and allegations of mafia connections. Yet, it still took four ballots for Mr. Marini to prevail, raising questions about whether Mr. Prodi’s new government will ever form.

That question is not rhetorical. Italy’s president puts the process in motion when he nominates someone to form a government, but the term of the current president, Mr. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, doesn’t expire until later this month. Thus Italy is left with a caretaker government in the meantime — plenty of time for Mr. Prodi’s coalition to come apart.

Italy needs economic reform. The public deficit has exceeded the European Union’s ceiling — 3 percent of gross domestic product — for three years and the government deficit tops 100 percent of GDP. The economy has recorded zero growth for two of the last three years, and is one of the worst performers in the EU. Its 7.7 percent unemployment rate is slightly below the union’s average, but it is still painfully high.

Mr. Prodi’s coalition includes two communist parties, neither of which will endorse the tough measures needed to get the Italian economy growing again. Instead, they are likely to protect their members and reject labor market reform and the privatization measures essential to modernizing the economy. The threat of defection will be a constant refrain.

All the while, Mr. Berlusconi will do his best to stir up dissent. Mr. Berlusconi has no doubt that he is the only man that can lead Italy. He actually outpolled Mr. Prodi in total votes (but came in second because of electoral reforms that create constituencies); his party, Forza Italia, won the most votes of any party. Not only is his ego on the line: During Mr. Berlusconi’s term in office, most attention was devoted to insulating him from criminal charges. He must now fear more, unfettered investigations.

Italian politics is once again expected to become quarrelsome and opaque. Deal-making, rather than administrative competence, will determine policy. Fortunately, Italians are used to this and will adapt as they always have. It is tempting to say they deserve better, but the truth is, it is their choice.

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