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Italy s Berlusconi wins third term by surprise margin

ROME, April 15 – Conservative billionaire Silvio Berlusconi won Italy’s general elections by an unexpectedly wide margin on Monday, securing a third term as prime minister but warning of tough times ahead for the country in the grip of an economic downturn.

"I will govern for five years," the 71-year-old media magnate told public television after his centre-left rival Walter Veltroni conceded defeat. "We have difficult months ahead that will require great strength."

He offered "an affectionate kiss to all Italians" before ending the telephone interview.

Veltroni, Rome’s former mayor, said: "As is the custom in all Western democracies, I telephoned Berlusconi to acknowledge his victory and wish him good luck in his work."

Berlusconi will return to the prime minister’s office for the third time since 1994, the year after he burst onto the political stage with his party of the time, Forza Italia! (Go Italy!).

The Piepoli polling institute predicted Berlusconi’s coalition would win 162 of the Senate’s 315 seats, giving him six more than the minimum needed for an absolute majority.

Victory in the Senate is essential to be able to govern, and since seats are allotted on a regional basis the makeup of the upper house does not always reflect the national vote.

The upper house was the scene of outgoing Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s downfall in January, when a small party with just three senators withdrew its support for the centre-left coalition.

In the lower Chamber of Deputies — where the winning coalition is automatically awarded 340 seats of a total 630 — Berlusconi’s forces won 46.4 percent to 37.9 percent for the centre-left, with nearly 80 percent of the vote counted, the interior ministry said.

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Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PDL), formed last year, absorbed the National Alliance.

For the elections, the PDL ran in a coalition with the anti-immigration Northern League of Umberto Bossi. The League nearly doubled its share of the vote to about eight percent, according to projections.

As the victor, Berlusconi must now confront an economic downturn and a nation frustrated over political gridlock blamed on the electoral law he himself crafted when coming to the end of his second premiership in 2005.

Official figures show growth has slowed to a forecast 0.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year against an already disappointing 1.5 percent last year.

The election campaign saw the candidates battling to overcome voter disillusionment with politics and the economy. Turnout was slightly over 80 percent, around 3.5 points less than that recorded in 2006 polls.

Berlusconi, who is known as "Il Cavaliere" (the knight), has pledged tax cuts, that one-third of his cabinet would be women, and tried to assuage disillusioned youths by promising to improve their employment outlook.

He held a double-digit lead over Veltroni when campaigning began in February. But that was eaten away to 6.0-7.0 percent when the last polls were permitted two weeks ago.

The centre-left leader closed the gap as he criss-crossed the country aboard a bus emulating US presidential style political campaigning.

Berlusconi, notorious for gaffes and derided for efforts to hide his advancing age and receding hairline, has been implicated in a string of corruption probes and ran up a budget deficit equal to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product during his last premiership.

The Italian people will now expect Berlusconi "to pull big rabbits out of his hat, but he’s only going to give them small ones," said political scientist James Walston of the American University of Rome.

Hoping to avoid the divisions of Prodi’s centre-left coalition that narrowly won in 2006, Veltroni spurned the far left and the centre when he set up his Democratic Party last year.

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Veltroni can at least draw solace from the fact that his party, according to the initial projections, will be Italy’s largest single party with the support of about one in three voters.

But the far left Rainbow Left, made up of two communist parties and the Greens whom Veltroni excluded from the new Democratic Party, lost badly, scoring around 3.5 percent of the Senate vote compared with 11.5 percent in 2006.

The result prompted Rainbow Left flagbearer Fausto Bertinotti, 68, to resign from politics.

"It’s a complete defeat of unforetold proportions," he said, according to the ANSA news agency.

"I will continue to be active, I will continue to help out, but my career ends here," Bertinotti, the head of the Refoundation Communist party, told reporters.

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