Conservative media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi has declared victory in the Italian general election as he looks set to begin his third term as prime minister after beating socialist Walter Veltroni.

In a phone call to Rai TV, Signor Berlusconi said of his victory: “I’m moved, I feel a great responsibility. We have difficult months ahead that will require great strength.”

Signor Veltroni said: “The election results confirms that the right will govern this country.

“We hope that they will do so with respect to certain fundamental values.

“However it will be difficult to hold such an alliance of parties together and we foresee problems in the future.”

Berlusconi’s right wing alliance is expected to have won 45.9 per cent of the vote, compared to 39.1 per cent for the left.

He is therefore believed to have won 340 votes in the lower house and with 46.8 per cent of the vote in the Senate, he will have 162 seats to the left’s 142 seats.

The 71-year-old Berlusconi has had an interesting campaign, at one point mocking his left-wing opponents for not having many attractive female candidates.

The public have been less than enchanted, going to the polls on Saturday and Sunday to determine who will lead Italy’s 63rd government since 1945.

It is thought Mr Berlusconi’s party People of Freedom, a merger of Forza Italia and National Alliance, and their allies will win a slim majority in the lower house of parliament.

The situation in the Senate is more complex, as seats are allocated on a regional basis.

Uniquely in Europe, both houses in Italy’s bicameral parliamentary system have equal power.

In any case it looks likely that Italy is set for another period of weak, unstable government, even if the leftist leader Walter Veltroni pulls off an unexpected victory.

This most recent political crisis began in January when Christian Democrat leader Clemente Mastella resigned as Justice minister after his wife was embroiled in a corruption scandal.

He complained that his coalition partners had been insufficiently supportive and that the corruption investigation was retaliation for his attempts to reform the judiciary.

The nature of the Italian political system means that since 1945 the country has mostly been ruled by fragile coalitions, and the group of parties that finally removed Mr Berlusconi from office in April 2006 were no different.

Former Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s commitment to increased gay rights caused tension in the coalition, which ranged from Communists to Roman Catholic parties.

Mr Prodi has now stood down from politics and is acting as caretaker Prime Minister until after the elections.

He also served as President of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004.

He lost the support of parliament in January after the nine-party coalition government he was leading fell apart.

Proposals from ministers to bring forward a draft bill that would grant any unwed couple, gay or straight, the right to register themselves as a family stalled.

The proposed new law would also have granted some pension and health insurance rights, but falls far short of the civil partnerships gay and lesbians in the UK enjoy.

Italy is perhaps the only country in Europe where the Roman Catholic Church retains such strong influence over politics.

Church-state relations remain frosty following Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated attacks on the proposed legislation to recognise gay couples.

With Mr Berlusconi and his allies back in office the modest gay rights agenda is likely to be abandoned completely.

He has already been one of Italy’s longest-serving post-war Prime Ministers, from 2001 to 2006 and also briefly from April 1994 to January 1995.

Italy remains divided over the extent that gay and unmarried couples should benefit from the legal rights that married heterosexual couples enjoy.

Last year’s proposed legislation to allow unmarried couples of any sexual orientation to formally register with their local authority and receive legal rights in areas such as property, inheritance and employment was attacked by Mr Berlusconi.

“It creates exactly what we didn’t want, a sort of ‘second division’ marriage which devalues the meaning of family,” he said.

A survey conducted in 2007 for newspaper La Repubblica found strong support for the measures.

67% of practising Catholics support protections for heterosexual co-habitees, a number which falls to 35% who think gay and lesbians should get legal protection.