U.S.-friendly Berlusconi elected for third stint as leader of Italy

.ROME (AP) – Media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi won a decisive victory Monday in Italy’s parliamentary election, setting the colorful conservative and staunch U.S. ally on course to his third stint as premier.

The victory in voting Sunday and Monday by parties supporting the 71-year-old Berlusconi avenged his loss two years ago to a center-left coalition.

“I’m moved. I feel a great responsibility,” he said in a phone call to RAI public television while monitoring election results at his villa outside Milan. Italian news agencies said he had a private dinner with key aides.

Berlusconi capitalized on discontent over Italy’s stagnating economy and the unpopularity of Romano Prodi’s government.

“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.”

This was Berlusconi’s fifth consecutive national election campaign since 1994, when he stepped into politics from his media empire, currently estimated to be worth $9.4 billion. He has fended off challenges to his leadership by conservative allies, withstood accusations of conflict of interest and survived criminal trials linked to his business dealings.

During his last time as premier, Berlusconi served a record-setting five years until his 2006 defeat. He made notable international gaffes as well as unpopular decisions at home, such as sending 3,000 soldiers to Iraq despite widespread opposition among Italians.

The Iraq contingent was withdrawn after his 2006 ballot loss, and he has ruled out sending any more troops there. But his friendship with the United States is not in doubt.

Berlusconi once said he agreed with the United States regardless of Washington’s position. He calls President Bush a friend, and his return to power is likely to make relations with Washington warmer, no matter who becomes the next American president.

The outgoing government had colder relations with Washington. Prodi never went to the White House, although he did talk with Bush in Rome and at international summits.

Berlusconi has also affirmed himself as one of Israel’s closest friends in Europe.

On Monday, he said he would make his first foreign trip as the new premier by visiting Israel to mark the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary. He said it would be a show of support for “the only real democracy in the Middle East.”

Berlusconi’s party and its allies won strong victories in both houses of parliament despite a strong final sprint by his main rival, Walter Veltroni, who ran a campaign that could have come out of Barack Obama’s playbook, with calls to “vote for change” and supporters armed with “We can!” banners.

In the 315-member Senate, Berlusconi was projected to control 167 seats to Veltroni’s 137. In the lower house, his conservative bloc led with 46 percent of the votes to 39 percent.

A movement led by comedian-turned-moralizer Beppe Grillo tried to get Italians to boycott the vote. But turnout in the politically polarized nation reached 80 percent, nearly as much as the 84 percent in the last national ballot in 2006, according to data from the Interior Ministry.

Berlusconi got a big boost from the strong showing by the Northern League, a key ally that won about 6 percent of the vote, according to projections. The party has strong regional identification and people in Italy’s wealthy north also were angered by Prodi’s tax increases and the downgrading of Milan’s Malpensa airport from its role as a hub.

A laundry list of problems await Berlusconi, from cleaning piles of trash off the streets of Naples – which he indicated is his top priority – to improving an economy that has lagged in performance compared with fellow EU nations for years.

The International Monetary Fund predicts the Italian economy, – the world’s seventh largest – will grow 0.3 percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average for the whole group of 15 EU nations that use the euro currency.

Economists say Italy needs to make structural reforms, such as streamlining government decision-making and cutting costs.

There is also criticism of the election law, which is widely blamed for political instability by giving disproportionate power to small parties – a problem that brought down Romano Prodi’s government and forced elections three years ahead of schedule.

In his postelection comments, Berlusconi said he was open to working with the opposition, and pledged to fight tax evasion, reform the justice system and reduce government debt.