The leader of the center-left coalition Romano Prodi looks set to become Italy's next prime minister after the Interior Ministry Friday significantly lowered the number of contested ballots in the parliamentary election.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has until now refused to concede defeat in the Italian general elections claiming voting irregularities. He demanded authorities check more than one million annulled ballots.

But according to Italian law only contested ballots, not annulled, can be checked. The Interior Ministry has said there were more than 43,000 contested ballots for the Chamber of Deputies and just below 40,000 for the Senate.

But on Friday, those numbers were sharply lowered to 2,131 for the lower house and 3,135 for the senate. The Interior Ministry said the change was due to a material error, in which contested ballots had been placed with the annulled ballots.

The Interior Ministry's statement now makes it increasingly likely that the narrow victory by Romano Prodi over Mr. Berlusconi will be confirmed. Official confirmation of election results is now expected next week by Italy's high court.

Despite the four days of political uncertainty, Prodi has already received congratulations on his election victory from French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Even before the Interior Ministry's statement Friday, Prodi had said counts of contested ballots were confirming his win. Mr. Berlusconi has not yet conceded defeat and said he has not yet spoken with Prodi.

Mr. Berlusconi suggested this week, that given the closeness of the result, Italy's sharply divided left and right should form a "grand coalition". The coordinator of the prime minister's Forza Italia party, Sandro Bondi, on Friday expressed similar thoughts.

Italy is divided in two and no coalition will be able to govern the country in these conditions," he said. "If we want to put Italy's interests first, and not those of the political forces, he added, we must find a way to dialogue."

It could be weeks before Prodi takes office. The mandate to form a government must be given by the Italian president. But President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi's term expires in mid-May and he has said that decision would be left to his successor. A new Italian president will have to be elected before Prodi can get down to business.