Berlusconi to make comeback as Italy premier

Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, 71, was poised to become prime minister of Italy for a third time after his centre-right coalition won the country's general election Monday. ( dpa )

"I am touched," he said in his first public words since provisional results showed him winning a comfortable edge over his centre-left rival, Walter Veltroni, in both branches of parliament.

According to Interior Ministry projections based on near final results, Berlusconi's People of Freedom party and its allies won around 47 per cent of the votes cast in the Senate race.

Veltroni's Democratic Party, which challenged Berlusconi alongside Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), was credited with about 38 per cent.

If the results are confirmed, Berlusconi will control 162 of the 315 elected Senators. This is a comfortable, but by no means safe majority, observers noted.

Moreover, experts predicted a tough ride in office for Berlusconi since his government will have to rely on the support of the federalist and xenophobic Northern League, which produced a strong showing in Italy's wealthy north.

In the lower Chamber of Deputies, his coalition received more than 46 per cent of votes cast compared with 38 per cent for its centre-left rival.

This should give him a far bigger majority of 340 seats in the 630-strong house.

Veltroni, who despite the defeat produced a better showing than many had expected, quickly conceded defeat in a telephone call to Berlusconi.

"I congratulated Berlusconi, as is common practice in Western democracies, to recognize his victory in the elections," Veltroni said.

The next Berlusconi government, which will be installed after consultations with head of state President Giorgio Napolitano, will be called, above all, to tackle Italy's deep economic woes. These include near-zero growth, rising inflation, a high budget deficit, falling competitiveness and low consumer confidence.

His finance minister is likely to be Giulio Tremonti, who held the post in his previous two governments. Berlusconi has also promised to appoint "at least" four women to his 12-strong cabinet.

But in spite of the clear victory, the former cruise ship crooner did not trumpet his success.

Having won the election by promising to cut taxes, raise pensions and rid Naples of its rubbish mountains, he instead acknowledged that he faced a tough task ahead, telling Italians: "Difficult years are in store."

And he also sent a strong message to the European Union, which has repeatedly asked Italy to cut its enormous budget deficit, by vowing to keep the country's public spending in check.

Berlusconi's first government of 1994 fell after just seven months in office. But his second, between 2001 and 2006, was the longest- serving in modern Italian history.

Veltroni, who took over the sceptre of leading the centre-left from outgoing premier Prodi, vowed to lead a "constructive" opposition in parliament.

Despite a good performance, he ultimately paid the price for severing ties with the far-left, which had proved decisive in defeating Berlusconi in the 1996 and 2006 elections.

"Our growth has been confirmed, but it's not enough to govern," said Ermete Realacci, a spokesman for the Democratic Party.

In another major development, the far-left was virtually wiped off Italy's political map after the Left Rainbow, which grouped Prodi's former far-left coalition partners, such as Communists and Greens, fell short of the required threshold needed to enter parliament.

No other party outside the two main coalitions, with the exception of the centrist Union of Christian Democrats, managed to elect any lawmakers.

The other surprise was voters' turnout.

In spite of widespread disenchantment with Italy's political establishment, more than 80 per cent of the country's 50 million eligible voters went to polling stations to cast their ballots.

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