For about a year, from late 2005 to late 2006, close elections were the rule worldwide: New Zealand, Germany, Sri Lanka, the Czech Republic, Mexico, Sweden and several others all produced unusually narrow margins, hung parliaments or minority governments. Italy, in April 2006, was an almighty cliffhanger, with incumbent Silvio Berlusconi refusing for weeks to concede defeat after suffering the narrowest of losses.

The centre-left coalition of Romano Prodi won by just 0.2%; that was enough for a decent majority in the lower house, where the winning coalition gets a bonus allocation of seats, but left the Senate evenly divided. So it was no great surprise when the new government ran into difficulties, and eventually lost a Senate vote of confidence in January this year, leading to fresh elections.

And overnight Italians confirmed that the era of close elections is over, decisively returning Berlusconi to power: as of this morning his centre-right coalition has 46.7% of the vote, against 37.7% for the centre-left led (since Prodi’s retirement) by Walter Veltroni. (Australia’s morning papers have given it scant coverage, but the BBC has a good report and if you can read Italian there are full figures at La Repubblica).

For Berlusconi, aged 71, this is his third turn as prime minister. His second term, from 2001 to 2006, was the only full-term government Italy has had since World War II; with hindsight, voters seem to have decided that sort of stability was a good thing. Moreover, as I put it two years ago, “an Italy without Silvio Berlusconi at the helm will certainly be a less exciting place.” Perhaps people just found the centre-left boring.

There were certainly very few major policy differences in evidence.

Despite the intense antagonism he provokes on the left, Berlusconi in practice has been studiously moderate. He is supportive of the US alliance, but sent troops to Iraq only after the invasion was over, and claimed before the last election that he had advised George Bush against it all along.

There are extremists in Berlusconi’s coalition — including the National Alliance, descendants of Mussolini’s fascists — but he has so far kept them under tight control. Latent extremism is equally an issue on the left, where Veltroni’s Democratic Party has a difficult relationship with the unreconstructed communists. But the large moderate centre seems to be characteristic of modern Italian politics.

The media have not failed to notice the comparison with the United States: Berlusconi is the same age as John McCain, and the much younger Veltroni modelled his campaign on that of Barack Obama. Time will tell whether there’s a general move in favor of ageing mavericks, or whether Silvio Berlusconi is just one of a kind.