With over 98 percent of votes counted after Sunday's regional vote, the Berlusconi-backed candidate for regional president, Nello Musumeci, had a fraction under 40 percent, comfortably clear of Giancarlo Cancelleri of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), on 34.6 percent.
It was a bleak day for the country's ruling Democratic Party (PD) and its coalition partners. The PD candidate polled 18.6 percent and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni's centre-left party lost control of the regional assembly.
Declaring the latest triumph in his chequered career, the 81-year-old Berlusconi said on his social media outlets that: “Sicily has chosen the road of real, serious and constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience.”
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Fewer than half the 4.5 million eligible voters cast ballots as turnout fell slightly from other recent votes on the mafia-plagued island where disillusionment with politicians runs deep. The outcome represents a setback for M5S, which had harboured ambitions of taking control of its first region after claiming the mayorships of Rome, Turin and a string of smaller municipalities last year.
It also underlined the significant problems facing the PD as it struggles to unite Italy's divided left in time for a nationwide vote due in the first half of 2018.
Summing up the lessons of the vote, Luiss university politics professor Giovannia Orsina said: “Berlusconi is still going and the right is competitive again.”
Five Star doubled its popular vote from the last round of regional elections (in 2012) and claimed a moral victory on the grounds that it got more votes that any other single party. “We started a wave that can take us to 40 percent in four months time (in the national election),” said Luigi Di Maio, the party's candidate for prime minister.
The PD's regional secretary, Fausto Raciti, described the outcome as a wake-up call for the left. “We can only recognize a clear defeat. I hope that this outcome will trigger reflection across the left on the need for unity,” he said.
As things stand, the PD will enter the general election with former premier Matteo Renzi as its candidate to lead the country. A centrist, Renzi is loathed by many on the left, inside and outside of his own party. They accuse him of adopting right-wing policies in the guise of reforms aimed at bolstering Italy's flagging competitiveness.
Renzi also carries the baggage of his defeat in a 2015 referendum on constitutional reform that led to his resignation and replacement by current premier Gentiloni.
Barred from office
In contrast, Berlusconi is on the rise again and victory in Sicily will strengthen his hand as he prepares to tie down the terms of a general election alliance with the far-right Northern League.
“This marks the start of a wonderful new chapter for the united right,” said Giovanni Toti, governor of the northern region of Liguria and a key lieutenant of the revitalized Berlusconi. Lombardy governor Roberto Maroni hailed the former premier as “immortal.”
Famous for his 'Bunga Bunga' sex parties, penchant for plastic surgery and serial off-colour gaffes, Berlusconi had been written off as a spent political force after a series of scandals and open heart surgery last year.
He is barred from public office as a result of a conviction for tax fraud, but is hoping to have the ban lifted. Even if it is not, he will be a central figure in what promises to be a highly unpredictable election. With the left struggling to overcome its divisions and M5S losing momentum, a Forza Italia-Northern League alliance looks well placed to emerge as the biggest force at the polls, which will be fought under a new electoral system favouring broad alliances.
M5S has denounced the electoral reform as rigged against it. The party, which styles itself as an anti-establishment force, has thus far ruled out entering into any alliance. Di Maio had been due to debate Renzi on national television on Monday but pulled out as the disappointing Sicily results emerged.
By Alessio Tricani with Angus Mackinnon in Rome