Silvio Berlusconi celebrated a comeback triumph last night, putting him back in charge of the world's seventh biggest economy for a third term as the centre-left failed to summon the unity to stop him.
In his first comments after winning Italy's election, Mr Berlusconi told a political programme on RAI television: "I feel great responsibility; difficult years await us."
He said his priorities would include solving the rubbish crisis in Naples and that of the airline Alitalia, providing affordable new housing, and launching important new infrastructure projects – all without increasing taxes. "It will not take long to form the new government," he added. He said it would have 12 ministers "including at least four women" and would finish its five-year term.
According to the latest projections, Mr Berlusconi and his centre-right allies gained a clear victory, with about 47 per cent of the vote against about 38 per cent for the Democratic Party of Walter Veltroni and its ally, Italy of Values.
Mr Berlusconi's People of Freedom coalition was expected to win 340 seats in the Chamber of Deputies – a majority of 63 – and 167 in the Senate, a majority of nine. The media magnate told his "post-Fascist" partner, former deputy prime minister and National Alliance leader Gianfranco Fini of his "profound satisfaction" at the result. Mr Veltroni conceded defeat shortly after 8 pm, telling supporters that he had telephoned the media magnate to congratulate him.
He defended himself against charges that his decision to split from the far left and the socialists and run as a single party had consigned the left to defeat.
"Our decision to run alone has opened a new political season in Italy," he said. He also questioned the durability of Mr Berlusconi's winning coalition.
"I don't know how long the new majority will last, the People of Freedom will have to tackle the contradictions caused by not wanting to choose between being a party and being a mere electoral coalition."
Umberto Bossi, Mr Berlusconi's coalition partner and leader of the secessionist Northern League, whose success was crucial in giving Mr Berlusconi a decisive victory, denied that he would hold the media magnate "hostage" to his programme.
"We love Berlusconi," he said. "We are friends. We have drawn up our programme together and we will keep our pact with him."
Mr Berlusconi, 71, Italy's third richest man and owner of Italy's most important commercial TV channels, appeared headed for a decisive lead last night, two years after being narrowly defeated by the centre-left. If the trend of early results is confirmed, he will begin his third term in power with a stronger showing in the Senate than his predecessor Romano Prodi, and thus with a good chance of governing for a full five-year term.
The results were a blow to the centre-left, which had raised its hopes after a dramatic shift in the opinion polls during the last fortnight to enable it to keep the media billionaire at bay. Opinion polls at the start of the campaign, which gave Mr Berlusconi and his allies a lead of 5 to 10 per cent, appeared to be a close reflection of the final result.
"The left has brought the country to its knees," roared the manifesto of the People of Freedom, which brings together Forza Italia and the post-Fascist National Alliance. "Rise again, Italy!"
Mr Berlusconi was able to cash in on his extraordinary popular appeal for a third time. He campaigned on a seven-point programme, the main themes of which included "relaunching development" – his promise to get Italy's stagnant economy moving again – improved security and justice, support for the chronically underperforming south, and federalism, the shibboleth of his principal ally, the Northern League. With the League looking set to double its representation, their key demand of federalism is likely to be pushed harder.
Mr Berlusconi's opponents and critics who warned that his previous record made him unequipped to rule, must now look to the prospect of another long spell of Berlusconi dominance. One way or another it is thought that he could contrive to be master of the nation for the next 12 years: it is anticipated that, once his term as prime minister is over, he will contrive to end his career as president, whose term lasts seven years. If that comes to pass, Mr Berlusconi would dominate Italian political life until 2020.
The election – forced less than two years into Romano Prodi's term as prime minister – was a trial by fire for the former Rome mayor Mr Veltroni, his replacement as head of the centre-left, but it was Mr Berlusconi's enduring appeal that won the day.