/ 14 April 2008

Berlusconi set for comeback as Italian PM

Self-made billionaire Silvio Berslusconi looked set to secure a third term as Italian prime minister on Monday, with exit polls predicting a narrow win for his conservative coalition in general elections.

The exit polls, which came moments after voting ended, predicted the 71-year-old media magnate’s centre-right coalition would win by between two and three percentage points.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL), in coalition with the populist Northern League, was given 42% of the vote against 40% for the centre-left led by former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni by one exit poll.

Another gave Berlusconi between 40% and 43% to between 37% and 40% for Veltroni.

A Berlusconi victory would return the media tycoon to the prime minister’s office for the third time since 1994, but the exit polls do not necessarily suggest he will enjoy an absolute Senate majority.

Electoral law allots seats in the upper house on a regional basis, which can lead to skewed results on the national level.

Berlusconi’s bid to convince the electorate to bring him back had to contend with widespread voter disillusionment with politics and a stagnant economy.

Voters were also fed up with an electoral law blamed for destabilising Italy’s political scene by giving it more than 60 governments since the end of World War II.

One would-be voter on Sunday channelled his frustration by tearing up and eating his ballot before being led away from a polling station in the southern town of Sorrento by police.

“What future are we preparing for our children? Who should I have voted for? Something has to change,” said 41-year-old Ciro D’Esposito.

Berlusconi, who goes by the nickname Il Cavaliere (the knight), enjoyed a double-digit lead over Veltroni when campaigning began in February.

Voter surveys in the run-up to the polls saw the former mayor gradually eat away at that lead, which stood at between 6% and 7% when the last polls were permitted two weeks ago.

Veltroni apparently closed the gap even further as he criss-crossed the country aboard a bus emulating United States Republican candidate John McCain’s Straight Talk Express.

As the race tightened, chances grew that Berlusconi may fail to secure a viable majority in the Senate — or even fall short in the upper house.

As prime minister the third time around, Berlusconi faces a populace disgruntled over both politics and the economy.

A survey two weeks ago indicated that 51,4% of Italians feel worse off, up from 36% a year ago.

In campaigning, Veltroni had urged voters to “turn the page” on the older generation represented by Berlusconi, who for his part cast his rival as a communist relic.

Berlusconi, notorious for gaffes and derided for efforts to hide his age and receding hairline, has been implicated in a string of corruption probes and ran up a budget deficit equal to 4,4% of gross domestic product (GDP) during his last premiership.

Hoping to avoid the divisions of the centre-left coalition led by Romano Prodi that narrowly won in 2006, Veltroni spurned the far left and the centre when he set up his Democratic Party last year. — AFP