ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time Italian prime minister, billionaire playboy and perpetual criminal defendant, who was all but counted out of Italian political life when a debt crisis forced his resignation in 2011, shocked the country Monday by shooting back into a position of influence.
Even by the chaotic standards of Italian politics, the resurgence of Mr. Berlusconi's People of Liberty party, which seems to be in contention to take the Italian Senate, and the astonishingly strong showing of a naysaying protest party led by Beppe Grillo have cast the Italian government into confusion.
There was no clear victor in Sunday and Monday's elections. There were, however, losers. The left-leaning Democratic Party, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, a former industry minister, won the lower House of Parliament but fell far short of expectations. On Monday night, as Mr. Bersani was left hoping to have enough support to try to form a coalition government, nervous murmuring imbued the party's victory festivities.
Mr. Bersani, 61, is weighed down with far-left partners including Nichi Vendola, a gay ex-communist southern governor whom the Italian press once dubbed "the white Obama." Mr. Vendola once assessed himself in an interview as "beloved." He is less cherished by the potential partners Mr. Bersani needs to form a coalition, setting the stage for yet another collapse-prone Italian government.
The smallest electorate since World War II sent a clear message of dissatisfaction to the country's caretaker prime minister, Mario Monti, who was advised by David Axelrod, a former adviser of U.S. President Barack Obama. An international darling for his technical government's emphasis on responsibility, personal austerity but also European spending throughout the continent's bleak financial crisis, Mr. Monti proved a political flop at home and won less than 10 percent of the vote, dashing his hopes to finish a mission that counted Mr. Obama among its supporters.
"This is a very important election," said Obama administration spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "We look forward to working closely with Italy's next government and its leaders when it is formed."
When that would happen was far from clear. Throughout Italy, there was fear that this morning's markets would once again view Italy as unstable, prompting the sort of debt crisis that forced Mr. Berlusconi from power in November 2011.
Mr. Berlusconi had promised to forgive the building of illegal houses and personally pay about 4 billion euros' worth of property taxes for Italian citizens. He also expertly benefited from the Italian political universe's fragmentation. Where once he had seemed a relic, he is again relevant.