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US friend returns to power in Italy

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080414/ap_on_re_eu/italy_election US friend returns to power in Italy By ALESSANDRA RIZZO, Associated Press Writer 13 minutes ago
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 14, 2008
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080414/ap_on_re_eu/italy_election

      US friend returns to power in Italy

      By ALESSANDRA RIZZO, Associated Press Writer 13
      minutes ago

      ROME - Media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi won a
      decisive victory Monday in Italy's parliamentary
      election, setting the colorful conservative and
      staunch U.S. ally on course to his third stint as
      premier.

      The victory in voting Sunday and Monday by parties
      supporting the 71-year-old Berlusconi avenged his loss
      two years ago to a center-left coalition.

      "I'm moved. I feel a great responsibility," he said in
      a phone call to RAI public television while monitoring
      election results at his villa outside Milan. Italian
      news agencies said he had a private dinner with key
      aides.

      Berlusconi capitalized on discontent over Italy's
      stagnating economy and the unpopularity of Romano
      Prodi's government.

      "I think it was a vote against the performance of the
      Prodi government in the last two years," said Franco
      Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome's
      John Cabot University. "Berlusconi won because he has
      a strong coalition and because people feel that on the
      other side, the government is going to take them
      nowhere."

      This was Berlusconi's fifth consecutive national
      election campaign since 1994, when he stepped into
      politics from his media empire, currently estimated to
      be worth $9.4 billion. He has fended off challenges to
      his leadership by conservative allies, withstood
      accusations of conflict of interest and survived
      criminal trials linked to his business dealings.

      During his last time as premier, Berlusconi served a
      record-setting five years until his 2006 defeat. He
      made notable international gaffes as well as unpopular
      decisions at home, such as sending 3,000 soldiers to
      Iraq despite widespread opposition among Italians.

      The Iraq contingent was withdrawn after his 2006
      ballot loss, and he has ruled out sending any more
      troops there. But his friendship with the United
      States is not in doubt.

      Berlusconi once said he agreed with the United States
      regardless of Washington's position. He calls
      President Bush a friend, and his return to power is
      likely to make relations with Washington warmer, no
      matter who becomes the next American president.

      The outgoing government had colder relations with
      Washington. Prodi never went to the White House,
      although he did talk with Bush in Rome and at
      international summits.

      Berlusconi has also affirmed himself as one of
      Israel's closest friends in Europe.

      On Monday, he said he would make his first foreign
      trip as the new premier by visiting Israel to mark the
      Jewish state's 60th anniversary. He said it would be a
      show of support for "the only real democracy in the
      Middle East."

      Berlusconi's party and its allies won strong victories
      in both houses of parliament despite a strong final
      sprint by his main rival, Walter Veltroni, who ran a
      campaign that could have come out of Barack Obama's
      playbook, with calls to "Vote for change" and
      supporters armed with "We can!" banners.

      In the 315-member Senate, Berlusconi was projected to
      control 167 seats to Veltroni's 137. In the lower
      house, his conservative bloc led with 46 percent of
      the votes to 39 percent.

      A movement led by comedian-turned-moralizer Beppe
      Grillo tried to get Italians to boycott the vote. But
      turnout in the politically polarized nation reached 80
      percent, nearly as much as the 84 percent in the last
      national ballot in 2006, according to data from the
      Interior Ministry.

      Berlusconi got a big boost from the strong showing by
      the Northern League, a key ally that won about 6
      percent of the vote, according to projections. The
      party has strong regional identification and people in
      Italy's wealthy north also were angered by Prodi's tax
      increases and the downgrading of Milan's Malpensa
      airport from its role as a hub.

      A laundry list of problems await Berlusconi, from
      cleaning piles of trash off the streets of Naples,
      which he indicated is his top priority, to improving
      an economy that has underperformed fellow EU nations
      for years.

      The International Monetary Fund predicts the Italian
      economy, the world's seven largest, will grow 0.3
      percent this year, compared with a 1.4 percent average
      for the whole group of 15 EU nations that use the euro
      currency.

      Economists say Italy needs to make structural reforms,
      such as streamlining government decision-making and
      cutting costs.

      There is also criticism of the election law, which is
      widely blamed for political instability by giving
      disproportionate power to small parties — a problem
      that brought down Romano Prodi's government and forced
      elections three years ahead of schedule.

      In his postelection comments, Berlusconi said he was
      open to working with the opposition, and pledged to
      fight tax evasion, reform the justice system and
      reduce government debt.

      ___

      Associated Press writer Ariel David contributed to
      this report.
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