ROME — Silvio Berlusconi, the idiosyncratic billionaire who already dominates much of Italy’s public life, snatched back political power in elections that ended Monday, heading a center-right coalition certain to make him prime minister for a third term.
But with a weak economy and frustration high that Italy has lost ground to the rest of Europe, it was unclear whether Italians voted for Mr. Berlusconi out of affection or, as many experts said, as the least bad choice after the nation weathered two years of inaction from the fractured center-left.
Still, Italy now returns to a singular sort of personal politics with Mr. Berlusconi as the unquestioned protagonist.
Rejecting the sober responsibility of the departing prime minister, Romano Prodi, Italians chose in a moment of national self-doubt a man whose dramas — the clowning and corruption scandals, his rocky relations with his wife and political partners, his growing hairline and ever browner hair — play out very much in public.
Mr. Berlusconi expressed “deep satisfaction” at his victory in a brief telephone call to a national television show.
But while his coalition won a convincing majority in both houses of Parliament, the victory came with much help from the Northern League, which advocates a federal system favoring the more prosperous north.
In 1994, that party caused Mr. Berlusconi’s first government to collapse — a history that center-left leaders made clear on Monday in defeat.
“A season of opposition now begins against a majority that will have a hard time keeping together things that are difficult to keep together,” said Walter Veltroni, 52, the former mayor of Rome and the leader of the Democratic Party who ran against Mr. Berlusconi. “I don’t know how long this majority will last.”
The Democratic Party will now be the largest opposition group.
Mr. Berlusconi, 71, Italy’s third-richest man and owner of media and sports businesses, did not give a victory speech. But in the phone call to the television station, Mr. Berlusconi, declaring himself “moved,” reached out to Mr. Veltroni to make changes most Italians say are needed to get Italy moving again. “We are always open to working together with the opposition,” he said.
Mr. Berlusconi will make a fuller statement Tuesday. But he promised immediate action on many of the problems vexing Italians, like the trash crisis in the south that has tarnished the nation’s image and the sale of the near-bankrupt national airline, Alitalia.
The election — called just two years after Mr. Berlusconi lost to Mr. Prodi — was considered one of the least exciting in memory, with many Italians doubting that either candidate could accomplish any meaningful change.
But in some basic ways, the election signaled a decisive shift in a nation whose politics have been unstable because of the narrow interests of its many small parties. Mr. Veltroni, heading the new Democratic Party, the result of a merger of the two largest center-left parties, had refused to run with far-left parties, as Mr. Prodi had done.
As a result, the ANSA news agency reported that the number of parties in the lower house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, would drop to just 6 from 26. For the first time since World War II, there will be no one in Parliament representing the Communist Party, which has long played an important part in leftist politics here. Mr. Veltroni, in fact, started his political career as a Communist.
Experts on the left and the right said — and in some cases lamented — that the election had shown a shift toward a more American- or British-style system of two dominant middle-ground parties.
“It’s a Waterloo,” said Tuesday’s headline in the moderate left daily Il Riformista.
Its editor, Antonio Polito, a departing senator from the now-defunct Margherita Party, said, “The left is disappearing for the first time in history.” Referring to Mr. Veltroni’s party, he added, “The only party that managed to save itself after two disastrous Prodi years is a party that is modeling itself after the Democratic or Labor Parties” in the United States and Britain, respectively.
Mr. Berlusconi’s spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti, echoed the analysis. “Italy has rewarded a simplification of the political panorama,” he said.
Late but still partial results showed that in voting for the lower house, Mr. Berlusconi and his allies had won just 46.6 percent of the vote, with Mr. Veltroni and his one ally at 38 percent. The lower house has a built-in winner’s prize, aimed at ensuring an easier majority, and early estimates had Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition with roughly 340 seats to Mr. Veltroni’s 241.
The upper house, the Senate, is far more complicated, with seats awarded by region. Before his government fell in January, Mr. Prodi had just a one-seat majority. Early projections on Monday showed Mr. Berlusconi with a 20-seat lead. In the popular vote, his coalition won 47 percent, compared to 38 percent for that of Mr. Veltroni.
In his campaign, Mr. Veltroni ran as a young face for change, portraying Mr. Berlusconi personally as weary and as a man who promised much when elected in 2001 but delivered little. While Mr. Berlusconi flew around in planes and helicopters, the low-key Mr. Veltroni toured the country in a bus, a sort of retail politics uncommon here in Italy.
In the end, said Piero Ottone, a prominent political columnist here, Mr. Veltroni failed “to capture the nation’s imagination, because our elections are decided by personality more than programs.
“And,” he continued, “he just wasn’t imaginative or energetic enough to leave a mark.”
Mr. Berlusconi, he said, ran a campaign that emphasized a natural glee that Italians still find attractive. “This time he just made jokes,” Mr. Ottone said. “He had no political message, but he still made headlines.”
But Mr. Berlusconi’s campaign was more subdued than his four other runs for national office, a reflection, many experts said, of the deep problems facing Italy, where growth has again dropped nearly to zero.
In this election, his promises were more modest — lowering taxes, cutting government spending and improving the nation’s ailing infrastructure — a platform not much different from that of Mr. Veltroni. Several experts, however, said Mr. Berlusconi would face much pressure to push through change, especially from owners of small and medium businesses.
Some experts said Mr. Berlusconi heads into his third term in office facing deep difficulties with the Northern League, whose leader, Umberto Bossi, on hearing the early results, shouted, “The league is strong!”
Mr. Bossi called for “federalism now,” meaning that the north should have more say over the much larger tax revenue it produces compared with the poorer south. Such proposals are contentious in Italy, where the lagging of the south is a big problem for the nation’s overall development.
Brief and to the Point:
Citizen Kane is back in power...What a disaster...