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Berlusconi leading Italian poll

Rutelli and Berlusconi
Rutelli, left, and Berlusconi have fought a bitter campaign  

ROME, Italy (CNN) -- The centre-right coalition led by media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi is ahead in Italy's general election, according to unofficial preliminary results from exit polls.

RAI state television reported that in the lower house of parliament, Berlusconi's House of Liberties Coalition was projected to win 48 percent to 51 percent of the seats.

If those results mirror the official figures -- expected later on Monday -- Berlusconi's centre-right coalition will have won a clear majority in the parliament, and he would become prime minister of Italy's 59th government since World War II.

One analyst calls Italy's current election campaign 'undoubtedly the dirtiest since 1948.' CNN's Alessio Vinci reports

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Berlusconi was premier for seven months in 1994 but his government fell when a key ally dropped out of the coalition.

He stood for election in 1996 but was unsuccessful.

His centre-left rival Francesco Rutelli's Olive Tree Coalition was projected to win 41 percent to 44 percent of the seats.

In the upper house of parliament, the centre-right coalition was projected to win 155 to 185 seats of the 315 seats that make up the Senate.

The centre-left coalition was projected to win 120 to 145 seats.

Turnout exceeded 80 percent, so high that Interior Ministry officials kept polls open for an hour longer beyond the 2000 GMT deadline.

Berlusconi, a 64-year-old media tycoon, voted early in Milan.

The centre-right candidate told reporters he was confident he had done all he could to convince voters to cast their ballots for him.

Rutelli, 46, a former mayor of Rome, waited on line an hour before he was able to cast a ballot at a polling station in Rome.

Other voters reported waiting as long as four hours, with some reported to have ripped up their ballot papers.

Rutelli, who had said he was confident he would win, then attended Mass and played tennis.

Whoever wins, there will likely be little change in foreign policy, said James Ralston, a professor at American University here.

"Italy's foreign policy these last eight years has been linked to European foreign policy," he said.

"Even with the Balkan crises, it has worked closely with the European Union, NATO and other international organisations."

CNN's Alessio Vinci said 60 percent of the population had casted their vote by 7 p.m. (1700 GMT), which is 10 percent higher than the previous election in 1996.

Berlusconi is the head of a huge business empire, including Italy's three main private TV stations, publishing, advertising and financial services.

He has been dogged by references to his past trials for bribery and illegal party financing, on which he was acquitted on appeal.

He still faces two trials for bribery and false accounting, charges that he has repeatedly denied, Reuters reported.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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