Updated Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 06:41 AM
ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time Italian prime minister, billionaire playboy and perpetual criminal defendant, who was all but counted out of Italian political life when a debt crisis forced his resignation in 2011, shocked the country Monday by shooting back into a position of influence.
Even by the chaotic standards of Italian politics, the resurgence of Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, which seems to be in contention to take the Italian Senate, along with the astonishingly strong showing of a protest party led by Beppe Grillo, a seething ex-comedian opposed to the euro, has cast the Italian government into confusion.
There was no clear victor in Sunday and Monday’s elections. There were, however, losers. The left-leaning Democratic Party, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, a former industry minister, won the lower House of Parliament but fell far short of expectations. On Monday night, as Bersani was left hoping to have enough support to try to form a coalition government, nervous murmuring imbued the party’s victory festivities, and an empty stage draped with a sign reading “A Just Italy” was surrounded by pacing officials.
Bersani, 61, is weighed down with far-left partners including Nichi Vendola, a gay, ex-communist southern governor that the Italian media once dubbed “the white Obama.” Vendola once assessed himself to The Post as “beloved.” He is less cherished by the potential partners Bersani needs to form a coalition, setting the stage for yet another collapse-prone Italian government.
“We have a problem of governability,” said the party’s spokesman, Roberto Seghetti.
The smallest electorate since World War II sent a clear message of dissatisfaction to the country’s caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, who was advised by David Axelrod. An international darling for his technical government’s emphasis on responsibility, personal austerity but also European spending throughout the continent’s bleak financial crisis, Monti proved a political flop at home and won less than 10 percent of the vote.
Throughout Italy, there was fear that Tuesday morning’s markets would once again view Italy as unstable, prompting the sort of debt crisis that forced Berlusconi from power in November 2011.
Only weeks ago, critics of Berlusconi were sure that the onetime cruise-ship singer was gone from national politics for good. Berlusconi had promised to forgive the building of illegal houses and personally pay about 4 billion euros worth of property taxes for Italian citizens.
“He’s the best campaigner,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, professor of political science at the Luiss university, who added that the “winner” of the elections, however, was Grillo’s raging Five Star Movement, which garnered about a quarter of the vote. “We have never seen anything like it in Europe,” he said of Grillo’s campaign.
The 64-year-old Grillo, who has sapped the votes of the Italian left, transformed himself from theoretical funnyman to public scourge of Italy’s corrupt political class in 2007, when he began holding V-Day protests (short for an Italian expletive). Hundreds of thousands of supporters have turned out in recent weeks to hear Grillo, who has put a Guy Fawkes mask on his Tsunami Tour’s campaign camper, has the most-read blog in Italy and exhausts himself screaming “thieves!” and bemoaning the country’s myriad woes.
What worries many of Italy’s more sober politicians and analysts is that the protest leader does not seem to be in favor of much. A conviction for vehicular manslaughter in an accident that killed three people means that Grillo himself cannot serve in parliament, and his candidates have no governing experience, having won by railing against tax collectors, vaccines, citizenship for children born to Italy’s legal immigrants and the euro.
Outside a voting station on Via Tevere, Giancarlo Pagotto, a retired banker, said he had cast his ballot for Berlusconi. “At this moment, he seems to me the only acceptable choice,” he said with a shrug. “I’m anti-communist so I can’t vote Bersani, Grillo is leading a good rebellion but we have no idea what he’s for, and Monti disappointed me.”
Antonio Calanni / The Associated Press
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi leaves a polling booth after voting in Milan, Italy, on Sunday. His People of Liberty party made a strong showing in the Italian vote.
Pier Luigi Bersani, leads Democratic Party
Beppe Grillo, leads Five Star Movement