This time, Berlusconi wins his comeback bid |

This time, Berlusconi wins his comeback bid


ROME (AP) – Billionaire media baron Silvio Berlusconi was poised Monday to come back as Italian prime minister, using salesmanship savvy, soccer team can-do pep talk and right-wing partners to win parliamentary elections.

There was no estimate when vote counting would be completed, but the numbers were clear enough for the incumbent center-left coalition’s candidate for prime minister, former Rome Mayor Francesco Rutelli, to concede defeat.

”A new era begins for all Italians,” Berlusconi said, arriving at his estate outside Milan. In a statement handed out by his aides, Berlusconi added: ”I am convinced that you all feel the need for a government that governs and of a premier who speaks less and works more and better.”

On Monday, however, many Italians may have felt the need only for sleep.

After the number of voting stations were slashed by about a third to save money, hourslong lines developed and tempers flared. Some voters knocked over tables and tore up their ballots. Others waited as long as seven hours after the official closing time of 10 p.m. to vote, returning home as the sun was about to rise.

During the campaign, Berlusconi, whose business interests include the country’s three main private networks, went on his own channels as well as state TV to promise Italians he would keep his part of a campaign ”contract” to create 1.5 million jobs, slash income taxes and increase pension payments.

In his ”contract,” Berlusconi vowed to leave politics at the end of parliament’s five-year term if he doesn’t deliver.

”He signed a contract with Italians and said he would leave office if he doesn’t keep to it,” said Rome newsstand owner Giuseppe Latini. ”Other politicians wouldn’t do that.”

With almost final returns showing Berlusconi’s House of Freedoms coalition on its way to a comfortable majority in both legislative chambers, he could stand a shot at lasting the full term, a rarity in fractious Italian politics where tiny parties and shifting allegiances have brought down many of the 58 governments since World War II.

Rutelli, who was a very popular two-term mayor, blamed his defeat on the refusal of some leftists, including some Communists, to join him.

The center-left promised ”the most ceaseless and uncompromising opposition toward a right we don’t trust” to keep its promises, Rutelli told supporters at a Rome hotel.

Berlusconi has weathered a barrage of critical scrutiny in the foreign media over allegations of corruption and potential conflict of interest because of his media interests.

On Monday, France’s foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, a Socialist, said he is paying close attention to Berlusconi’s efforts to form a government. Congratulations came from the foreign minister of Spain, whose conservative leader, Jose Maria Aznar, Berlusconi admires.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States hopes to ”enjoy a cooperative and fruitful relationship” with the Berlusconi government.

Far-right Austrian politician Joerg Haider, whose anti-immigration policies have been compared to those espoused by a Berlusconi ally, said he welcomed the results.

Until betrayed by an ally, one of those in his current coalition, Berlusconi was prime minister for seven months in 1994. He lost his first comeback bid in 1996.

Many Italians either hate Berlusconi or love him.

”He won because he is able to hypnotize the Italian population and knows how to do it perfectly,” said Giada Pedda, a woman in early 20s, when asked about the man whose business interests also include film and advertising companies, investment and insurance concerns, publishing and real estate and a major league Milan soccer team.

”Italians are dreamers and they think that Berlusconi can change their lives,” scoffed a middle-aged Roman, Marialaura Ronchi, as she was getting an espresso in a cafe.

Rutelli, who had said Italians would pay dearly for some of Berlusconi’s promises, such as raising pensions, predicted that the country might no longer qualify to participate in the European Union’s common currency if economic austerity isn’t the rule.

The uncertainty over the exact final outcome was in part a result of Italy’s complicated electoral system – a mix of direct and proportional representation – as well as the reluctance of some parties to declare allegiances to either main bloc.

Final results for the Senate gave Berlusconi’s coalition 177 seats to the 125 won by Rutelli’s forces. A majority there is 163 votes.

With most precincts counted by Monday evening for the Chamber of Deputies, Berlusconi’s bloc had at least 282 of the 630 seats, while the center-left could count on 182. A majority in the Chamber is 316 votes. Projections showed Berlusconi’s forces would take 330-365 seats, with the center-left winning 250-280.

One of Berlusconi’s allies, the sometimes xenophobic Northern League of Umberto Bossi, barely made it past the 4 percent cutoff needed to enter parliament, according to projections.

Berlusconi’s other main campaign partner is National Alliance, a former neofascist party with roots in dictator Benito Mussolini’s political legacy.

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