Silvio Berlusconi pulled off a Lazarus-like rise from political oblivion on Monday by securing enough support in Italy’s general election to hobble, or block altogether, the formation of a new government.
Early projections were fluid and sometimes contradictory, but the billionaire businessman’s conservative coalition seemed to have won a majority in the senate, the upper house of parliament.
Millions of Italians appeared to have been seduced by promises he made during a fiery election campaign, including pledges to repeal and pay back an unpopular property tax and to create millions of new jobs.
His portrayal of his center-left opponents as unreconstructed Communists, and of Germany as an unfairly harsh fiscal task master imposing austerity on Italians, also struck a chord with many voters.
But his unexpected victory is likely to plunge Italy into protracted political paralysis, dismaying the rest of Europe and rattling market confidence in the eurozone’s third biggest economy.
Mr. Berlusconi’s key victory was in the senate, where early counting suggested that he had clinched 31 percent of the vote.
The center-left Democratic Party of Pier Luigi Bersani – which had been the favorites to win the election – was just behind, with 30 percent.
A centrist bloc led by Mario Monti, an economist who has governed Italy at the head of a technocrat administration for the last 16 months, won just nine percent.
In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, Mr. Bersani’s party fared better, taking around 35 percent of the vote, ahead of Berlusconi’s coalition with 29 percent.
The fact that the two houses of parliament were split between the main parties is likely to ensure chronic political instability. Berlusconi’s declared aim during the campaign was to win enough seats in the senate to paralyze a center-left government.
“It’s an extraordinary triumph,” said Angelino Alfano, the secretary of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. “I have called Berlusconi to thank him on behalf of the party for an extraordinary result that is all down to his tenacity and his determination. We believe we have a majority in the senate, now we are awaiting the counting for the lower house.”
Despite the triumphalism of the right, many politicians and analysts predicted that the country would have to return to the polls within months.
“If this is the result, the next parliament will be unworkable,” said Enrico Letta, the deputy secretary of the Democratic Party. “There will have to be a new electoral law and we will have to go back to the polls.”
Complicating the picture further, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by firebrand comedian-turned-political activist Beppe Grillo, enjoyed stunning success, clinching up to 25 percent of the vote in the lower house.
Casting his vote in his home town of Genoa on Monday, he was asked whether support for his movement, which holds both the left and the right in contempt, would render the country ungovernable.
“The country is ungovernable right now. We will bring honest citizens to parliament,” he said, as he was mobbed by journalists and camera crews.
Luis Durnwalder, the governor of the German-speaking Alto Adige region in the far north of Italy, said: “It will be very hard to govern if Grillo’s party is that strong, given that its only program is to be against everything.”
During the election campaign, Berlusconi tirelessly appeared on dozens of prime-time television programs, dominating political discourse, making wisecracks and appealing to ordinary people with a mixture of populism and extravagant promises.
“Berlusconi has made a comeback which everyone thought was impossible,” says Daniele Caramani, a professor of Italian politics at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. “The vote for Berlusconi was a vote for the wallet. I think his promises to repay the property tax worked. But he also conducted a very impressive campaign. He was on TV all the time looking fit and fresh, not 76 years old.”
“The result for Grillo is unbelievable. I would say it is mostly a protest vote – the party has no clear program, we don’t know what their policies are.”
The split vote and the unexpected success of Berlusconi will ensure days of horse-trading and backroom deals in order to form a new government.
“Giorgio Napolitano [the president of Italy] may try to convince the parties to support a government of national emergency,” says Prof. Caramani.
Grillo campaigned around Italy on what he called a “tsunami tour,” railing against the greed and incompetence of the political caste and profiting from a series of corporate scandals which damaged the two main parties.
Many of his candidates have almost zero political experience. They are students, web designers, environmentalists, and house wives, some of them in their twenties.
But Grillo said they were just what was needed to shake up Italy’s calcified political system and has promised to “open up parliament like a tin of tuna”.
“Our candidates are young, they are inexperienced, and that is their strength – they don’t know how to fiddle the books,” he said.
His Five Star Movement has few concrete policies, other than vague enthusiasm for Internet-based direct democracy and the environment.
But he managed to tap into a wave of voter disgust towards the established parties, appealing to millions of angry, frustrated Italians in a country where the rate of youth unemployment is now 36 percent.
Roberto Fico, a member of his Five Star Movement, said: “Change has begun, but there is still a long road ahead. There is still a part of the country that believes in Berlusconi’s senseless proposals and is influenced by his TV channels. But an epochal change is underway.”
James Walston, a professor of Italian politics at the American University of Rome, says: “I’m flabbergasted. We knew Grillo would do well, but not this well. We thought Berlusconi would make a comeback, but not like this. It could hardly be worse for Europe.”