Berlusconi's Victory A Revolution for Italy's Parliament

Silvio Berlusconi has triumphed. With his clear majority in both houses of parliament, the billionaire has returned to power and revolutionized the parliamentary landscape. The reasons for Berlusconi's win are as clear as they are simple.
Von Michael Braun

You couldn't call what happened in Italy on Monday merely a win -- it was a triumph. With an almost 7-percent advantage in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, almost 8 percent in the Senate and a clear majority in both houses, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has returned to the country's political helm.

Berlusconi's bloc succeeded in winning over 45 percent of the vote. The center-right People of Freedom party (PdL), founded by Berlusconi especially for this election, alone garnered about 40 percent of the vote, while future coalition partner the Northern League attracted about 6 percent in the Senate and 6 percent in the lower house -- a clear improvement over its 2006 result.

Until the very end, former Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who heads the center-left Democratic Party, had hoped to shift public opinion against Berlusconi with a spirited and intense campaign. In the end, though, his hopes were crushed. His Democratic Party, which was founded in October and brought together various left-wing and centrist parties that had formerly been part of Romano Prodi's bloc The Union, garnered between 33 percent and 34 percent of the vote. Its only political partner in the race, the Italy of Values party, led by Antonio Di Pietro, a former anti-Mafia prosecutor who was a cabinet minister in the last government, scored just about 5 percent -- too little to stop Berlusconi's political resurrection. It was also too little to mirror the 2006 result that saw Romano Prodi achieve a clear majority in the lower house, but only a one-seat majority in the Senate.

In the run-up to that election, the opinion polls were clear: they predicted a clear victory for Prodi's center-left coalition -- and a quiet disappearance from the political stage for Berlusconi. There was only one person who didn't believe the experts' forecasts: Berlusconi himself. He knows the right side of Italy's political spectrum better than anyone, and he knew that, even as the voters were disappointed with his five years in office from 2001 to 2006, they feared the left -- even a moderate Catholic leftist politician like Prodi -- even more.

With a furious campaign that brought every bit of his media conglomeration to bear, Berlusconi was able to make the election a cliff-hanger. In the end, only 25,000 votes and a tiny percentage difference separated the two candidates. And then Berlusconi kicked off the discussion about possible ballot box fraud. Elsewhere, he would have been written off as a poor loser. But among his constituents -- among those who think the communists capable of anything -- he emerged as the moral victor.

And the rest was Prodi's doing. The center-left coalition, clinging to power with an instable coalition of 13 parties, could accomplish little. On the right, everything that Berlusconi had failed to do in his five years in office -- bring about structural improvements, end economic stagnation -- was quickly forgotten. They saw Prodi as a fiscal Dracula, sucking ever more taxes out of the population in order to balance the budget and bring Italy into compliance with euro-zone deficit rules. The contrast to Berlusconi could not have been greater. Prodi's predecessor had pushed through one tax amnesty after the next, freeing some 30 percent of Italy's workforce from the cumbersome duty of paying taxes.

Prodi's successor on the left, Walter Veltroni, did his best to campaign both against Berlusconi and against Prodi himself. The former mayor of Rome presented himself as being a "completely new" political product. Just once was Prodi allowed to appear in Veltroni's campaign, but mostly he was kept from view -- an object of shame. It was a campaign that proved effective enough to avoid a monumental defeat -- 40 percent certainly provides hope for political success down the road. But many saw a kind of Italian Barack Obama in the charismatic Veltroni. That hope was definitely not fulfilled.

Similarly hopeless was the expectation that the defeat, if it happened at all, would be by a thin margin and Berlusconi would have to govern with the same wafer-thin majority in the Senate as Prodi before him. On the contrary: Berlusconi has a clear mandate, and he has a convincing majority -- the same as in 2001, when he became prime minister for the next five years.

What is even worse for the left is the fact that his coalition now is more homogenous than it was then. The Christian Democrats of the UDC, who repeatedly put the brakes on Berlusconi during their five years in government, are no longer there. The Northern League of the crude right-wing populist Umberto Bossi has obtained a decisive weight in the coalition. Bossi is still fondly eyeing the idea of the secession of the rich north from the rest of the country, when he's not agitating against immigrants.

The UDC, on the other hand, will have to sit next to Veltroni on the opposition benches -- and will probably spend its time looking for new political contacts for a fresh start after Berlusconi.

A new beginning -- that's also the key phrase on the radical left, which was punished in the election like no other political force in the country. Two years ago, the two communist parties and the Greens managed to get a good 10 percent of the vote between them. This time, they ran as part of the left-wing federation The Left -- the Rainbow.

But the new unity project failed to convince the electorate. Some preferred to vote for Veltroni's center-left party in a bid to stop Berlusconi. Others simply stayed at home, because they had not forgiven the radical left for taking part in Prodi's coalition. In the end, the federation not only failed to reach the 8-percent hurdle for the Senate, but -- against all predictions -- also missed the 4-percent hurdle in the Chamber of Deputies. For the first time since 1945, the communists will no longer be represented in Italy's parliament.

And also for the first time -- and in Italy this counts as a real revolution -- there are only four parliamentary groups in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, meaning that the era of having 23 to 30 parties fighting it out between themselves is over. On the left, there is Veltroni's Democratic Party, in the middle the UDC, and on the right Berlusconi's People of Freedom and the Northern League. The new constellation will bring an unusual clarity and simplicity to Italian politics.

Nonetheless, the new parliament will still have its old leading man Berlusconi, who has dominated Rome's political scene for 14 years, and who wants to continue until 2020: first for five years as prime minister -- and then maybe another seven as president.