(dpa) - Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right coalition was Monday credited with a narrow lead of just under 5 per cent over Walter Veltroni's Democratic Party in Italy's general election, according to preliminary projections based on votes cast in the Senate race.
The projections, which widened the gap provided by exit polls published earlier, put support for Berlusconi at 43.7 per cent, compared with 39.1 per cent for Veltroni.
The data carries a margin of error of plus or minus 2 per cent, ministry officials said.
Exit polls published by Sky Italia immediately after polls closed gave Berlusconi a 42 per cent share of the votes cast for the lower house of parliament, compared with 40 per cent for Veltroni.
No projections for the Chamber of Deputies race were yet available.
"We are in the realm of maximum uncertainty," said Giuseppe Pisanu, who acted as interior minister in the last government headed by Berlusconi, in 2006.
While the gap between the two main contenders appeared to be widening, the difference was still too small to declare a winner, observers said.
According to Italy's convoluted electoral law, the winning coalition is guaranteed a comfortable majority in parliament's lower house.
But the distribution of seats in the Senate is based on a regional basis, meaning neither side will know if they have won until more reliable estimates are published.
Voter turnout was marginally lower than registered in the last general elections in 2006, but still topped 80 per cent, Interior Ministry figures showed.
Two parties not allied with either Berlusconi or Veltroni, the centrist Catholic Union of the Centre (UDC) and the Left Rainbow leftist coalition, were credited with a support rate of around 5 per cent each, allowing them a presence in the Chamber of Deputies but not the Senate.
The next government will be called to tackle Italy's deep economic woes, including near-zero growth, rising inflation, falling competitiveness and low consumer confidence.