Silvio Berlusconi, the idiosyncratic billionaire who already dominates much of Italy’s public life, snatched back political power in elections that ended Monday, heading a center-right coalition certain to make him prime minister for a third term.
But with a bad economy and frustration high that Italy has lost ground to the rest of Europe, it is unclear whether Italians voted for Berlusconi out of affection or, as many experts said, as the least bad choice after the nation weathered two years of inaction from the fractured center-left government.
Still, Italy now returns to a singular sort of personal politics with Berlusconi as the unquestioned leading protagonist. Rejecting the sober responsibility of the outgoing prime minister, Romano Prodi, Italians chose in a moment of national self-doubt a man whose dramas — the clowning and corruption scandals, his rocky relations with his wife and political partners, his growing hair line and ever browner hair — play out very much in public.
He expressed “deep satisfaction” at his victory in a brief telephone call to a national television show.
While Berlusconi’s coalition won a convincing majority in both houses of Parliament, the victory came with much help from the Northern League, which advocates a federal system to favor the more prosperous north. The party caused Berlusconi’s first government in 1994 to collapse — a history that center-left leaders made clear in defeat.
“A season of opposition now begins against a majority that will have a hard time keeping together things that are difficult to keep together,” said Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome and leader of the Democratic Party who ran against Berlusconi. “I don’t know how long this majority will last.”
The Democratic Party will now be the largest in opposition.
Berlusconi, 71, Italy’s third richest man and owner of a media and sports empire, did not make a victory speech. But in the brief phone call to the television show Berlusconi, declaring himself “moved” by the victory, reached out to Veltroni to make changes most Italians say are badly needed to get Italy moving again.
“We are always open to working together with the opposition,” he said. He is to make a fuller statement on Tuesday. But he promised immediate action on many of the problems vexing Italians, such as the trash crisis in the south that has tarnished the nation’s image and the sale of the near-bankrupt national airline, Alitalia.
The election — called just two years after Berlusconi lost to Prodi — was considered one of the least exciting in memory, with many Italians doubting that either candidate could actually accomplish any meaningful change.
But in some basic ways, the election signaled a decisive shift in a nation whose politics have been unstable because of the involvement of many small parties with narrow interests. As head of the newly born Democratic Party — the merging of the two largest center-left parties — Veltroni had refused to run with far-left parties as Prodi had done.