However, after five years at the helm of the European Commission reconciling the conflicting interests of various member states, Prodi aims to use his experience to unite a potentially split government after the closest election in modern Italian history.

Prodi, a former economics professor, has an understated manner that contrasts with his outspoken electoral opponent Silvio Berlusconi.

Where his opponent revels in the glitz and glamour of the media spotlight, Prodi campaigned on a more serious platform, highlighting issues such as unemployment, crime, the economy and the war in Iraq - from where he has promised to withdraw Italian troops as soon as possible.

One of his campaign posters rather drearily urged Italians to vote Prodi "for seriousness in government".

Clean-up campaign

Prodi strived to appear as the cerebral candidate, keen to play up the differences with Berlusconi.

"There is no correlation between being a good manager and a good politician. A good manager acts for his own interests, while a politician acts for everyone," he said during the campaign.

"Prodi is like a useful idiot. He lends his cheery parish priest face to the left, which is 70% comprised of former  communists"

Silvio Berlusconi on Romano Prodi

Prodi based his campaign on  cleaning up the public finances and promises a return to morals in politics, a thinly veiled dig at Berlusconi's repeated court cases over his business activities.

He has attracted praise for pulling together more than half a dozen parties in his disparate centre-left coalition, which encompasses interests as diverse as communists and moderate Roman Catholics.

Born in Bologna in 1939, he studied at the London School of  Economics and Milan's Catholic University before joining the faculty of the University of Bologna.

Election winner

Prodi began his political career as industry minister in the  government of Giulio Andreotti in 1978-79.

From 1982 to 1989 he was head of the state holding company IRI, which he helped privatise, before returning to full-time politics.

When he helped form the Olive Tree centre-left coalition to  contest the April 1996 election, he was initially seen as a  technocrat lacking charisma and uncomfortable on television, but he won voters round and beat the incumbent Berlusconi.

His premiership lasted only 18 months before his communist coalition partners pulled out, but in that time he revived the ailing Italian economy sufficiently for it to join the single currency three years later.

During this time, Prodi carved out an international reputation which belied his mild-mannered image, and in September 1999 he became the 10th president of the European Commission serving until October 2004.

For a country that prides itself on being one of the six founder EU states, a failure to make it into the euro would have been a national disaster.

That Prodi was able to avert this was partly due to his ability  to distance himself from Italy's political and media circus, instead channelling all his energies into modernisation and constitutional reform.

A family man with a wife and two grown children, Prodi enjoys  cycling and distance running, and ran his first marathon in  December.