ROME (Reuters) - Billionaire showman Silvio Berlusconi has again pulled off an astonishing fight-back from scandal and humiliation, coming within a whisker of success in Italy's election.
Before the Feb 24-25 vote, pollsters and analysts widely predicted this would be the media magnate's last hurrah and he would be clearly beaten by his center-left foes. They said he would eventually disappear from the scene.
Instead, Berlusconi was one of the big winners alongside the populist leader and comedian Beppe Grillo, defying polls and building substantial negotiating power for tortuous talks on how to form a new government despite a deeply uncertain result.
His success is a qualified one for sure and cannot hide the fact that his People of Freedom (PDL) party has slumped to almost half the 38 percent of votes it won in a landslide victory in 2008.
But compared with expectations it was a shock. His brother's il Giornale newspaper reflected his supporters' relief and joy with a giant front page headline reading "Berlusconi Miracle."
Berlusconi himself is said to be disappointed that he didn't win outright, but he is set to seize almost as many seats in the Senate as his center-left rivals. In the lower house his center-right coalition lost out on a giant winner's premium by less than one percentage point.
Combined with the extraordinary success of Grillo, this has deadlocked parliament in a result that left Italy's future uncertain and unnerved global markets.
Such a success seemed unimaginable only two months ago, except to pundits who have learned never to underestimate the former cruise ship crooner during his two decades at the center of the political stage.
The 76-year-old four-times prime minister looked down and out for much of 2012 after a jeering crowd hounded him from office in November 2011 with Italy tottering towards a Greek-style debt crisis.
Months of indecision over whether to stand in the election brought his PDL to the brink of disintegration with less than 15 percent in the polls.
But since precipitating the fall of his successor, technocrat Mario Monti, in December and diving into the campaign, Berlusconi has shown unrivalled mastery of communication and energy belying his age.
"Berlusconi was a poor prime minister but is a very tough campaigner, he never gives up," said commentator Massimo Franco.
Italy's longest-serving prime minister is known for off-the-cuff humor, diplomatic gaffes and his facelifts, perennial tan, make-up and hair weave. Embroiled almost constantly in scandal, including currently a lurid sex trial, Berlusconi's success has always been a mystery abroad.
But his flamboyant persona hides a keen political mind and an almost uncanny talent for responding to the fears and concerns of ordinary Italians.
His success in clawing back a 10-point center-left lead in December is down to three factors.
He homed in on a painful housing tax imposed by Monti that is deeply hated by Italians. His offer to pay it back was mocked by his opponents but scored with many conservative voters especially pensioners suffering badly in the longest recession for 20 years.
He attacked German hegemony in Europe and accused Monti of being a puppet of Chancellor Angela Merkel and imposing austerity policies at her behest - another theme that resonates with many Italians sick of recession and soaring unemployment.
The final factor is that he was, in the words of one Italian on a radio phone-in program on Tuesday, "shooting at an open goal" because of the terrible campaigns run by both Monti and center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani.
Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) was in disarray on Tuesday after kissing away their commanding opinion poll lead and almost losing the election because of the rise of Grillo and Berlusconi.
Neither the colorless Bersani nor economics professor Monti could compete with Berlusconi's antics including a storm of television appearances in which he rarely lost his cool and showed a talent for rapid quips that some Italians would laugh about for days afterwards.
When the increasingly exasperated Monti accused Berlusconi of being a pied piper leading Italians astray, the media magnate shot back that he would probably try to tax his flute.
Monti, who disastrously tried to turn himself from a stately and respected technocrat into a mud-slinging political fighter, slumped in the polls with his centrist alliance winning little over 10 percent, half their target.
Analysts said before the vote that the result investors feared most would be a Berlusconi victory, but now he has a chance of returning to government in a possibly uncomfortable and short-term alliance with the center-left.
He had to renounce his candidacy for prime minister however, to win a crucial electoral alliance with the federalist Northern League which successfully boosted center-right votes in battleground northern regions. The League rank and file are wary of Berlusconi and his scandal-plagued reputation.
As he climbed the ratings in recent weeks, the nervousness in European capitals, particularly his favorite target Germany, was palpable.
But calls by European politicians to vote for Monti and not Berlusconi only played into the former premier's hands, creating resentment at foreign interference and damaging the outgoing prime minister.
Berlusconi had for years seemed virtually immune to controversies that would have destroyed a politician in many parts of the world. He has survived up to 30 prosecutions for fraud and corruption and is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute during lurid "bunga bunga" parties.
His wife Veronica left him in 2009, accusing him of consorting with underage women, and was recently awarded a settlement of 100,000 euros ($132,200) a day. But he even made campaign jokes about that.
(Writing by Barry Moody, editing by Peter Millership)