Berlusconi Rides Again

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Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Getty

Italy's conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi waves to photographers before casting his ballot at a polling station in Milan on April 13, 2008.

Only in Italy could Silvio Berlusconi, the country's richest and occasionally most outlandish man, be elected Prime Minister. Three times! Spry and combative as ever, the 71-year-old media mogul on Monday rolled to a clear-cut election victory just two years after Romano Prodi had ousted him from the job by a whisker's margin.

Berlusconi's win over popular Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, by an estimated margin of between 6% and 8%, is a testament both to the colorful former prime minister's staying power, and also to Italy's sometimes inexplicable political chemistry. After telling a state-owned TV show host that he was "moved" by the support, and ready to work to resolve Italy's problems, Berlusconi appeared on a show on one of his own networks to accuse his opponents of stealing the election two years ago. "There was a negative interruption of our work," he said. "I say what I think: there were voting irregularities in the election of 2006, which is demonstrated by our margin [of victory] today."

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Berlusconi can be expected to lead a coalition of solid majorities in both houses of Parliament. Prodi, who beat Berlusconi twice, in 1996 and 2006, spent these last two years in power with a razor-thin margin in the Senate, where his governing coalition finally imploded in January after a failed confidence vote. Veltroni, leader of the newly formed Democratic party, made a point of not aligning with more extreme parties on the left. He is expected to head the opposition, and will try to consolidate power across the center-left spectrum and winnow away more support from the array of small, typically destabilizing political parties.

Berlusconi could be pulled towards the right by his biggest ally, the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which garnered an impressive 8% to 9% of the vote, as of late polling Monday. The most immediate outcome of the vote may be to scuttle negotiations for Air France-KLM to takeover ailing national carrier Alitalia, which both Berlusconi and the Northern League had openly opposed.

Italian politics had long been dominated by a revolving-door line-up of gray Christian Democratic leaders who shared power with smaller parties in a establishment of backroom deals and Byzantine rhetoric more likely to confound rather than communicate with real people. But for the past 14 years, the political arena has been dominated by Berlusconi, the neon version of the billionaire in a blue pinstripe suit, making the hard sell in simple, sometimes bawdy language. Some said it was a welcome change from the politics of the past, and he won a short-lived victory in 1994 before his center-right allies turned against him. When he returned for a second term in 2001, and refused to resolve a mammoth conflict of interest linked to his media and financial holdings, alarm bells went off across Europe. Though he used his power to push through laws that favored his business interests, and allowed him to wriggle out of lingering court cases, fears that Italy's basic democratic institutions were at risk turned out to be unfounded.

In all his ups and downs, Berlusconi has remained a unique figure in the West, who plays by his own rules and often doesn't seem to suffer the consequences. Still, although the election result is a personal vindication for Berlusconi, there's little sign of the optimism and enthusiasm that he generated in 2001. Most polls show that voters on both sides of the political spectrum were generally disillusioned with Italy's political class, even though 80% of the electorate showed up at the polls. A Roman taxi driver, Filippo, who'd voted for Berlusconi, was listening to the radio, just as Veltroni was about to concede defeat. "We Italians always go to vote," he said. "But by now we're sick of all them." Before rescuing Alitalia or turning around the economy or reforming the country's crippled justice system, Berlusconi's toughest task will be saving the Italian citizen from dying a cynic's death.