Silvio Berlusconi set to return to Italian politics after Sicilian election victory

Centre-right bloc backed by former prime minister claims victory in Sicilian election, seen as dry run for national vote due next May.

Silvio Berlusconi looked poised for a stunning political comeback as his rightist bloc claimed victory in an election in Sicily that puts it in pole position for a national vote due by next May.

The regional Sicilian ballot, held on Sunday, was seen as a dry run for the nationwide election, with many of the island’s problems reflecting those of the country as a whole: high unemployment, a debt mountain and sluggish economic growth.

An influx of migrants, many of whom arrive in Sicily after being rescued in the Mediterranean, was also a key issue.

With 93% of the votes counted, a centre-right bloc backed by the four-time prime minister was running more than five percentage points ahead of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), with the centre left, which governs at the national level, a distant third.

“Sicily, just as I asked, has chosen the path of real, serious, constructive change, based on honesty, competence and experience,” Berlusconi, 81, said in a video posted on Facebook.

Nello Musumeci, the centre-right’s candidate for governor of the island, had 39.9% of the vote, while M5S’s Giancarlo Cancelleri had 34.6%. The centre left’s Fabrizio Micari was lagging on 18.5%.

The result puts Berlusconi back on the political map after years of sex scandals and graft allegations which seemed to have reduced the billionaire media mogul to a spent force.

Berlusconi cannot run for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction. But he hopes the European court of human rights overturns this ban when it reviews his case later this year, which would pave the way for a possible national challenge.

He returned to the fray after open heart surgery last year and campaigned actively in Sicily. Even if the courts deny him the chance to run, he would be an influential figure should the centre right capture power again nationally.

The result on the island 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.

Defiant in its defeat, the anti-establishment M5S vowed to reach national government next year, and its leader Luigi Di Maio declared the PD “politically dead”.

Opinion polls suggest the centre right will win next year’s national vote but a recent change to the electoral law is likely to stop any one bloc winning an absolute majority of seats, resulting in political gridlock.

Sicily is traditionally a centre-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.

Berlusconi’s allies, the Brothers of Italy and the Northern League, reaped rewards with anti-immigrant campaigns, suggesting this will remain high on the agenda for the national vote.

The centre-left government has moved this year to shut down the flow of migrants from Libya after more than 600,000 people, mainly Africans, reached Italy over the past four years. But the issue has dented support for the centre left, which has further damaged itself by falling prey to ferocious schisms.

The M5S 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.