Leading article: An unwelcome return

For those who despair of the Italian political system – and they include many of the country's own citizens – Silvio Berlusconi's emergence as the apparent victor of the general election can only serve to fulfil their worst apprehensions. After barely two years in the political wilderness, the man who was widely dismissed as representative of the worst aspects of traditional Italian politics, a businessman who had used his wealth to buy up the media, his position to avoid prosecution on corruption charges and his political command to alter the electoral laws in his own favour, seems on the exit poll results at least to be coming back to power.

Not only has Berlusconi seemed, on the first indications, to have won a clear victory in the House of Deputies but also, on the early results, a decisive lead in the Senate, where his own electoral reforms have made it more difficult for any party to gain a majority. The left can gain some cheer from the perfectly respectable showing of Walter Veltroni and his Democratic Party. Indeed, the speed and energy with which the former mayor of Rome has reversed the slide in the fortunes of the left has been very creditable. On the other side, meanwhile, there is the depressing fact that Berlusconi owes much of his success to his alliance with the resurgent Northern League, who may have doubled their representation in the election. Berlusconi's closeness to a separatist ally with profoundly right-wing views is one of the most disturbing features of this vote.

In the end, the Italians seem to have given a clear mandate to Berlusconi. They may have done so partly out of disillusion with the left and the efforts of the last Prime Minister, Romano Prodi. But it may also be a sign – like their vote for the Northern League – of disillusion with the state of Italian politics.

For it is less the minutiae of the election itself that are of most concern to Italians and to Europe in general, than the failure of Italy's creaking political system to produce an effective government, or a clean one. The corruption and political stagnation which has prevented the country achieving economic development at home or weight abroad in the past two decades has become ever more apparent in the new millennium. It needs a new generation and a fresh political start, with a government prepared to tackle constitutional reform and economic change.

Berlusconi has the authority, but has he the character or the will? Based on his past performances, he is a politician of the old school, concerned primarily with his own interests and those who can help him. Perhaps he will change now. But, if not, Italy is in for another five years of regression, with the awful prospect that, if reports from those close to him are correct, he is keen to take on the presidency for another seven years after that. Perish the thought.