ROME – 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 Rome mayor 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.
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 might 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 among themselves. One tiny party in the coalition eventually brought down the government after only 20 months and three years ahead of schedule.
And 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 prosecuted repeatedly on corruption charges that he so far has fended off.
“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.”