Berlusconi Plans His Third Stint in Power

ROME -- Conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi has scored a decisive victory in Italy's parliamentary elections, setting the colorful billionaire and staunch U.S. ally on course for his third stint as prime minister.

The victory in Italy's election Sunday and Monday marks a remarkable return to power for Berlusconi, 71, avenging his loss two years ago at the hands of the center left.

"I'm moved, I feel a great responsibility," Berlusconi said Monday evening in a phone call to RAI public television. The media mogul remained out of sight, taking in the results at his villa outside Milan and, according to Italian news agencies, having a private dinner with key aides.

The victory attests his political longevity. This was Berlusconi's fifth consecutive national campaign since 1994, when he stepped into politics from his media empire, currently estimated at $9.4 billion. He has fended off challenges to his leadership, survived conflict of interests accusations and criminal trials.

Berlusconi won victories in both houses of the parliament, despite a strong final sprint by his main rival, Walter Veltroni.

In the 315-member Senate, Berlusconi was projected to control 167 seats to Veltroni's 137.

In the lower house, Berlusconi's conservative bloc was leading by a margin of 7 percent, or 46 percent of the vote to 39 percent.

Berlusconi capitalized on discontent over the nation's stagnating economy and the unpopularity of 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.

In his last term, Berlusconi served a record-setting five years, during which he made notable international gaffes and unpopular decisions, such as sending 3,000 troops to Iraq over the protests of thousands of Italians in the streets.

This time he has ruled out sending new troops to Iraq, 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.

The outgoing government of Premier Romano Prodi has had colder relations with Washington, and Prodi never went to the White House, even though he has met with Bush in Rome and at international summits.

Berlusconi has no easy task ahead of him.

A laundry list of problems await, from cleaning piles of trash off the streets of Naples, which he has indicated will be his top priority, to improving the economy.

In his comeback, Berlusconi was helped by a strong showing by the Northern League, which won about 6 percent of the vote, according to projections. People in Italy's wealthy northern regions have been complaining about Prodi's tax increases and the demise of Milan's hub Malpensa.

Berlusconi says he is needed to lead the uneasy alliance of economic liberals, postfascists and northern separatists.

"On the center right, unfortunately, there is still no one else but me who can hold together all the moderates, liberals, Catholics, secularists and reformists," he told Il Mattino daily.

"I am, in a word, irreplaceable."

AP, Reuters