Saturday, April 19, 2008

Berlusconi Reclaims Power in Italy

Berlusconi Reclaims Power in Italy

ROME (AP) — Conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi reclaimed power in key U.S. ally Italy on Monday after clinching decisive victories in both houses of parliament.

The 71-year-old media mogul was congratulated by his main rival, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who conceded defeat even though the vote counting was still under way.

"The election result is clear even if we wait for the final data," said Veltroni. "It says that the right will govern this country."

Berlusconi, who was in his villa near Milan, made no immediate statement, just waving as he passed in his Mercedes.

In the Senate — a race that had been expected to be close — Berlusconi was projected to win 163 seats compared to 141 for Veltroni. The body has 315 seats.

In the lower house, Berlusconi's conservative bloc was leading with 46 percent of the vote to 39 percent for Veltroni's backers.

In Italy's bicameral system, premiers must have control of both houses to govern.

The victory for Berlusconi is testament to his political longevity — and sees him return to power after two years of center-left rule by Premier Romano Prodi left Italy with a stagnating economy.

This was Berlusconi's fifth consecutive attempt at the premiership — and third win — since 1994, when he stepped into politics from his media empire. He has fended off challenges to his leadership by his conservative allies, survived conflict of interests accusations and criminal trials.

"I think it was a vote against the performance of the Prodi government in the last two years," said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome's John Cabot University. "Berlusconi won because he has a strong coalition and because people feel that on the other side, the government is going to take them nowhere."

A sense of malaise hung over the elections as Italians cast ballots Sunday and Monday.

Many Italians are pessimistic that the ruling class — dominated for years by the same key figures — can offer much chance of change. They complain about the poor state of the economy and the fact that their purchasing power has decreased.

Signs of decline abound, from piles of trash in Naples, to a buffalo mozzarella heath scare that has hurt exports and hit one of the country's culinary treasures, to the faltering sale of the state airline Alitalia.

A movement led by comedian-turned-moralizer Beppe Grillo had invited Italians to boycott the vote.

However, turnout was only 4 points behind the last national vote in 2006 — 80 percent compared with 84 percent, according to data from the Interior Ministry.

In his comeback, Berlusconi has been helped by a strong showing by the Northern League, a key ally, which has won about 6 percent of the vote, according to projections.

Berlusconi has no easy task.

A laundry list of problems await him, from cleaning the streets of Naples, which he has indicated is his top priority, to improving an economy that has underperformed the rest of the euro zone for years.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the Italian economy, the world's seventh largest, will grow 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average growth for the 15-country euro area.

Berlusconi will also need to make economic reforms, such as streamlining the decision-making progress and cutting the costs associated with politics. Changes in the election law are also on the agenda.

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