He's ba-aaack: Italy gives Berlusconi fourth PM term

Mediaset boss tops rival Veltroni by 7%

Election returns late Monday showed that Italians favored billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi over rival Walter Veltroni by about 7 percentage points, making it likely that the 71-year-old leader will return to power for the fourth time since he burst onto the political scene 14 years ago.

With the majority of the votes counted, it appears that Berlusconi would have enough support to pull together a coalition in both houses of parliament, almost assuring he will be able to form a government when asked to do so by Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, probably today.

As recently as the end of last year, the prospect of a return to power seemed extremely remote for Berlusconi, whose media empire includes broadcast giant Mediaset and film producer and distributor Medusa. He was struggling to remain the main leader of the opposition, and political rival Romano Prodi — then prime minister — seemed to have a firm grip on power.

But Berlusconi orchestrated a series of no confidence votes that finally felled Prodi's government at the end of January, and he stood firm to block an electoral reform plan that could have made his election less likely. He also withstood what was seen as a late surge in support for Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome and the founder of the RomaCinemaFest.

The vote took place Sunday and Monday, and the results have been more or less in line with the last round of polls that gave Berlusconi a lead of between 6 and 9 points.

The question now is whether Berlusconi's victory will be large enough to ensure him a large enough margin in the parliament to avoid Prodi's fate, and the ways in which a fourth Berlusconi government could differ from the first three.

Critics have charged that, in the past, Berlusconi has used his stretches in power — in 1994 and 1995, and two back-to-back governments between 2001 and 2005 — to bolster Mediaset by crafting favorable laws and directing government ad budgets to the broadcaster.

Berlusconi's victory also marks the final nail in the coffin for the Gentiloni media reform package that would have forced Mediaset and state broadcaster RAI to migrate one channel each to digital frequencies by the end of next year and would have capped any single broadcaster's share of the television ad market. Berlusconi opposed the initiative from the start and it is clear that it will be completely removed from consideration when he takes power.

But his advocates say his penchant for business deals will help bolster the Italian economy, in-cluding the beleaguered television sector, which has suffered from falling ad sales and declining viewership levels.