Italians elected Silvio Berlusconi to a third term as prime minister in two days of uninspired voting that ended Monday. The flamboyant billionaire and media tycoon warned of rough times ahead for the struggling nation.
Partial returns gave Berlusconi and his center-right coalition, including a xenophobic party based in northern Italy, a sizable lead over their nearest rival, former mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni and his center-left Democratic Party.
“This is a big responsibility, and we have difficult months ahead that will require great strength,” Berlusconi said in an on-air telephone call to a friendly TV presenter. Earlier, Veltroni went before supporters at his Rome headquarters to concede defeat. He said he had telephoned Berlusconi to congratulate him.
Voters turned out in high numbers Sunday and Monday but with little apparent enthusiasm as they elected their 62nd government in the 63 years since the end of World War II. A prevailing theme among many, regardless of whom they supported, was that Italy is in serious economic trouble and the next government may not be able to change the nation’s course.
But the margin of Berlusconi’s victory, in which he and his allies gained indisputable control of both houses of parliament, also suggested a stinging condemnation of the left and the outgoing center-left administration of Prime Minister Romano Prodi.
Italians watched in dismay as the more than one dozen disparate parties within the fractious Prodi government squabbled endlessly. One tiny party in the coalition eventually brought down the government after only 20 months -- three years ahead of schedule.
The dissatisfaction with the left was apparently sufficient to obscure memories of the foibles of the Berlusconi reign, 2001-2006, an administration plagued with corruption allegations and at least partly responsible for much of Italy’s current economic decline. Berlusconi has been repeatedly prosecuted on corruption charges, which he has fended off thus far.
“Italians want change, and the left did not produce it,” said political analyst Franco Pavoncello, president of Rome’s John Cabot University. “It is not a matter of you like [Berlusconi] or not, but that he put together a coalition that voters wanted to support. Italy is a very conservative country that tends to vote for the right.”
Italy is also a country where the desire for change does not necessarily contradict its conservatism: The change many want involves prosperity and freedoms, especially from taxation and restrictive laws.
Neither Berlusconi nor Veltroni offered creative plans for rescuing Italy from its spiral of high inflation and anemic growth. Even Berlusconi, known for outrageous and politically incorrect comments, ran a fairly tepid campaign.
Numerous voters said they cast their ballot based on lifelong party affiliations, not attraction to one candidate or another.
At the Leonardo Da Vinci High School in Rome, Alessandra Sordini, 74, said she was voting for Berlusconi because as a businessman he stood a better chance of fixing the economy.
“We have been drowning and we need to stay afloat and begin to work and produce,” she said. “It’s a hope, a hope that he can change something.”
“Besides,” added Sordini, a housewife and great-grandmother, “he makes me laugh. These others made us weep.”
Her husband, Amedeo Rosa, 81, a retired jeweler, said he also supported Berlusconi. “Worse than now it can’t get.”
But some Italians said it could indeed get worse.
“I’m really scared of Berlusconi and the right getting back in power,” said Laura Fano, 32, a Veltroni supporter who works with an international aid agency. She said another Berlusconi government would be a reprise of all the moves he made purportedly to bend laws in his favor and for the benefit of his myriad business interests.
“Quite a few of my friends decided not to vote; they say it’s all the same,” she added. “I don’t agree. The system is rotten, but Berlusconi made it worse.”
Other Italians said they supported Berlusconi and the right because of their Roman Catholic faith. Although the powerful Catholic Church did not interfere directly in this election, it has made well known its opposition to many policies of the left, such as abortion and rights for same-sex and common-law couples.
“Only Berlusconi can make things right again. Just look at the mess of the left,” said Gabriele De Sanctis, 60, an employee of the Ministry of Transport. “I believe in family and certain Catholic values, and he represents them. . . . Italy is fundamentally right-wing and that’s what people finally should realize.”
Berlusconi, 71, is one of Italy’s wealthiest men and is ostentatious in his embrace of plastic surgery and hair plugs. He was one of the rare Italian prime ministers to complete a full term.
In his campaign, he promised to cut taxes and expel illegal immigrants. A key allied party that was decisive in giving Berlusconi a surprisingly strong mandate, the Northern League, is based in northern Italy and is especially virulent in its rejection of immigrants.
Veltroni, 52, less charismatic but popular as Rome’s mayor, also promised to seek modest tax cuts and to reform Italy’s jumbled immigration laws.