Berlusconi pledges to clean up Naples and save Alitalia

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The Independent Online

Italy's new prime minister Silvio Berlusconi promised a brisk return to power yesterday, saying he would name his new ministers within a week, as the final general election results confirmed the triumph of the media magnate and his right-wing allies.

With a likely majority of 10 in the Senate and dozens in the lower house, Mr Berlusconi is guaranteed a far easier ride than his predecessor Romano Prodi, who struggled for a mere 20 months with a Senate majority of one before seeing his government collapse.

Mr Berlusconi, who usually thrives in the television limelight, chose to remain out of sight during the day, preferring to spell out the most urgent priorities for his third term as prime minister via telephone interviews. They include removing Italy's main property tax and saving the national flag carrier Alitalia from bankruptcy. He also promised to bring an end to the chronic rubbish crisis in Naples, pledging to work three days a week in the city until the task was completed.

Mr Berlusconi returns to power barely two years after losing to Mr Prodi, but faces a radically changed parliament. The threshold of votes required for parties to be represented in parliament – 4 per cent in the lower chamber and 8 per cent in the upper house – resulted in a massacre of the smaller political parties.

Italy has long had the largest communist party in western Europe but, for the first time in the republic's history, no communist candidate gained enough votes to win a single seat in either house. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists, who ran a disastrous joint campaign with the Greens, resigned after the catastrophic results became clear.

Franco Zeffirelli, the opera and film director and a lifetime senator in Mr Berlusconi's party, was exultant. "We have waited 40 years to get a true bipolar system in this country," he said. "This is the only country left in Europe where you could still see the hammer and sickle. The country has been paralysed by this host of tiny parties like wasps, which in a thousand ways have prevented the government from functioning properly. Some of them like Bertinotti's had a certain political weight but now they have all been pulverised."

Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom party won 37.4 per cent of the parliamentary vote, while Walter Veltroni's Democratic Party, gained 33.2 per cent, even though it was founded only four months ago. These two main parties will dominate parliament without serious challenges. But the success of Mr Berlusconi's ally the Northern League, which doubled its share of the vote to 8.3 per cent, will force him to concentrate on issues of importance in the north, especially illegal immigration and infrastructure.

Leaving aside the quips and gaffes which littered his campaign, a sombre Mr Berlusconi asked Italy for a third term in office yesterday, saying: "Difficult years are awaiting us. Five years to modernise the country in which we will reduce the public debt... and never raise taxes." He also pledged to tackle the Mafia.

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