With about 85 percent of the votes counted, a center-right bloc backed by the four-times prime minister was running five percentage points ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, with the center-left a distant third.
“Sicily, just as I asked, has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,” the 81 year-old said in a video posted on Facebook.
The result puts Berlusconi back on the political map after years of sex scandals and graft allegations. By contrast, it deals a stinging blow to another former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, head of the ruling Democratic Party (PD), which is locked in feuding with erstwhile leftist partners.
After a raft of vote setbacks in recent years, Renzi has many critics inside the PD who may now try to mount a challenge to his leadership.
The regional Sicilian ballot, held on Sunday, is seen as a dry run for the national vote, with many of the island’s problems reflecting those of the country as a whole — high unemployment, a debt mountain and sluggish economic growth.
“A WINNING MODEL“
Sicily is traditionally a center-right stronghold which was poached by the PD in 2012 thanks to splits in the conservative bloc. This time Berlusconi reunited the coalition behind a widely respected leader with a far-right background.
Nello Musumeci, the center-right’s candidate for governor of the island, had 39.8 percent of the vote, while the 5-Star’s Giancarlo Cancelleri had 34.7 percent. The center-left’s Fabrizio Micari was lagging on 18.5 percent.
“From Sicily we will demonstrate that this is a winning model that can triumph at a national level,” said Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the right-wing Brothers of Italy party which is the junior partner in the center-right alliance.
The maverick 5-Star, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, had campaigned relentlessly for months in Sicily, looking to take charge of its first region after a string of successes in municipal ballots in recent years, including in Rome and Turin.
Its leader Luigi Di Maio said the party had been penalized in Sicily by low turnout — less than half of those eligible cast a vote.
“In two or three months I think many of those who abstained will regret not going to vote,” Di Maio said, insisting that if turnout had been 3 or 4 points higher it could have tilted the result in the movement’s favor.
Although defeat is a blow, the 5-Star can take comfort from the fact that it is the largest single political force, taking at least 30 percent of a separate vote on Sicily for party lists against less than 15 percent for its nearest rival — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy!)