Berlusconi Poised For 3rd Term as Economy Stalls

By Sarah Delaney
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

ROME, April 14 -- Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's flamboyant billionaire politician, rode a wave of uncertainty about the country's economic future to score a comeback victory for himself and his coalition in parliamentary voting that ended Monday.

His newly minted People of Freedom bloc handed an unexpectedly harsh defeat to a coalition that united remnants of the defunct government of Romano Prodi.

Berlusconi is now in place to become prime minister. It will be the third time that the seemingly indefatigable 71-year-old takes the helm of Italy, which is suffering from near-zero economic growth, a staggering deficit and increasing public impatience with the political class.

"Yes, we've won, it's what I've said throughout the whole electoral campaign," Berlusconi said by telephone on Italian television. "It's a great responsibility; we have difficult months ahead of us that will require great effort." He promised to work with his opponents to enact legislation to restart the economy, a collaboration that will require overcoming the animosity of the last weeks of the campaign.

Berlusconi's last term, which ended in May 2006, was marked by repeated gaffes and unsuccessful criminal prosecutions of the prime minister in connection with his business dealings. "The rest of Europe will just roll its eyes, sigh and say, 'Here we go again,' but there's nothing they can do about it," said John Harper, a professor of political science at the Bologna branch of Johns Hopkins University.

Prodi, seeking to control deficits, was blamed by many Italians for raising taxes; Berlusconi promises to reduce them "and people trust him to do that," said Marc Lazar, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Lazar noted that most of the promises Berlusconi made in his last term, which lasted five years, were not met.

Eighty percent of the 47 million eligible Italian voters went to the polls. That was down 3.5 percent from 2006, when Prodi and his nine-party coalition won a razor-thin victory over Berlusconi and his allies, who had overseen Italy's longest postwar government.

Walter Veltroni, 52, a onetime Communist Party member who went on to become mayor of Rome, headed the Democratic Party, a new party of Prodi camp members. He pursued an American-style campaign in all 110 Italian provinces, exuding optimism and promising change. Monday night he conceded defeat and wished Berlusconi well.

Nearly complete results showed the People of Freedom, or PDL, a confluence of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the formerly fascist National Alliance and the anti-immigrant Northern League, with about 47 percent of the vote for seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament. The Democratic Party and its ally, the Italy of Values party, got a combined figure of about 38 percent. The party with the most votes receives extra seats to push it over the halfway mark.

In the Senate, the PDL appeared to have won about 47 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Party got about 38 percent.

Parties that had been familiar faces in the Italian political spectrum for the past several years were swept away by new election rules that set minimum thresholds for seats in Parliament. For the first time in post-World War II Italian politics, there will be no members of radical Marxist groups or Greens in either house.

The results return to power a man who Forbes magazine ranks as the second-richest Italian, through ownership of a television and print media empire along with one of the country's most successful major league soccer teams. A onetime cruise ship crooner, Berlusconi is also unusual among European leaders in having had plastic surgery and a hair transplant. He often wears elevator shoes.

Characteristically outspoken, he once accused a German parliamentarian of being a kapo, or Nazi prison guard. He gave a vulgar hand signal over the head of the Spanish foreign minister in a group photo of European ministers. He recently remarked that women on the right of the Italian political spectrum are much better looking than those on the left, and exhorted his female supporters to bake pies and bring them to polling stations.

In the electoral campaign, Berlusconi and Veltroni both promised lower taxes, greater incentives for economic development, higher salaries and better job security. Toward the end of the campaign, Berlusconi began making his familiar accusation that the Democratic Party was nothing more than a front for the old Communist Party and that Veltroni was a "Communist disguised as a liberal."

Raffaele De Mucci, a professor of political science at Rome's Luiss University, said Berlusconi spoke successfully to Italians' fear of eroding buying power and the disastrous accumulation of garbage in Naples due to a breakdown in that city's infrastructure.

In the rest of Europe, "he's not considered very seriously, but he could recuperate some credibility with a bit of moderation of his temperament," De Mucci said.

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