Berlusconi, Northern League Notch Wins in Italy
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Italy's controversial media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has won a third term as prime minister, and he got a bigger share of the vote than anyone expected. There were other election surprises. Several extreme left parties were defeated and Berlusconi's ally, the Northern League, which is a strongly anti-immigrant party, doubled its share of the vote.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Once again, political forecasts got it all wrong. There was no close tie, and for all the talk about Italians wanting change, voters ended up giving a 71-year-old two-time prime minister yet another term. Now, the man often lampooned in the foreign media will return to power with a very comfortable majority.
But analysts were unprepared for the huge success of Berlusconi's ally, the Northern League. Born 20 years ago with its roots in country folklore, the League doubled its votes, making big inroads in left-leaning working class bastions of industrialized cities like Milan, Turin and Genoa.
Northern League official Roberto Maroni warned commentators to stop calling his party extremist.
Mr. ROBERTO MARONI (Northern League Party Official): (Through translator) We are a large party that gets lots of votes, which represents the most developed part of the country. We have 200 mayors and many regional councilmen. Stop calling this a protest vote.
POGGIOLI: The Northern League has never hidden its desire that the north stop footing the tax bill for the rest of the country, seen as a parasite living off the hard work of northern workers and entrepreneurs. It has its own self-styled parliament and flag, and traces its ethnic groups to the Celts rather than to the peoples of the Mediterranean basin.
The party is vehemently anti-immigration. A campaign poster featured a Native American and a slogan: They were also subjected to immigration. Now they live on reservations.
Political analysts are predicting that Berlusconi will be a hostage to the Northern League, a protectionist party that will block needed economic reforms. But Berlusconi told Italian TV last night he has always had excellent relations with the league.
Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through translator) When we governed together for five years, the League never opposed any of my decisions, while I did have problems with other coalition partners who blocked some important reforms.
POGGIOLI: The other big election surprise was the collapse of what is called the radical left, a motley group of small Marxist and Green parties. For the first time since the fall of fascism, communists, who had taken part in drafting the post-war constitution, will have no representation in parliament.
Giulio Anselmi, editor-in-chief of the daily La Stampa, says the political Berlin Wall has finally fallen also in Italy.
Mr. GIULIO ANSELMI (Editor-In-Chief, La Stampa): (Through translator) Important historical parties with strong roots in society have disappeared. Voters wanted governability, and the radical left was defeated for promoting an amnesty for criminals and for being soft on illegal immigration.
POGGIOLI: Walter Veltroni, leader of the centre-left, was quick to concede defeat. He said his party will wage a strong opposition in parliament, but he's also willing to work with Berlusconi on desperately needed institutional reforms.
Berlusconi has announced a very lean government - only 12 ministers, including four women. The tasks ahead are daunting. Italy is undergoing a rapid economic decline and near recession and is far behind its major European neighbors. It's unclear how Berlusconi is going to carry out campaign promises that would cost nearly 6 percent of GNP. And his proposal to impose custom duties on imports could cause serious problems with his European Union partners.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.