Last updated: February 3, 2012 3:46 pm

Berlusconi to abandon frontline politics

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Silvio Berlusconi has declared he is “stepping aside” from frontline Italian politics, revealing he has no intention of running again as prime minister.

In his first interview since resigning amid turmoil on financial markets in November, Mr Berlusconi spoke to the Financial Times at his Rome residence on subjects from what he called a media-inspired furore over his “bunga bunga” parties to his anger at “leftwing” magistrates hounding him in the courts and his drive to promote political and judicial reforms.

Mr Berlusconi also gave his strongest endorsement to date of the technocratic government led by Mario Monti which took over from his own, in particular its intention to implement labour market reforms opposed by trade unions.

Mr Berlusconi’s praise for Mr Monti – uttered with no conditions attached, although with some reservations over tax increases imposed in December – is likely to please investors and European leaders concerned that Italy’s former prime minister might try to destabilise the new government and stage a political comeback.

“I have now stepped aside, even in my party,” Mr Berlusconi said, noting his three election victories since 1994 had made him Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister. His centre-right People of Liberty party is entering a transition period after 18 years under his leadership.

Mr Berlusconi said he resigned in November because he had been attacked “by an obsessive campaign by the national and foreign media that blamed me personally and the government for the high spread of Italian state bonds and the crisis on the stock market”.

“After having evaluated the causes of the crisis, which did not rest in Italy but in Europe and the euro, I believed that if I had stayed in government I would have damaged Italy as we would have had more terrible media campaigns,” he said.

“With a sense of responsibility, though having a majority in both houses of parliament … I stepped aside and with elegance.”

An animated Mr Berlusconi insisted that he was “still young” at 75, showing a bruise he said came from playing ice hockey with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. But Mr Berlusconi indicated that he would be getting too old to run for prime minister again in elections expected in the spring of 2013.

Instead Mr Berlusconi reiterated his backing for Angelino Alfano, the 41-year-old former justice minister from Sicily and secretary of his People of Liberty party, as his heir apparent. But for the first time he also made clear that the party, still the largest in parliament, would hold primaries to choose its candidate for prime minister.

Mr Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul, showed he had no intention of quitting politics entirely, signalling that he would remain influential behind the scenes as the party’s “founding father”. He also said he might stand for election as a member of parliament, saying that opinion polls gave him much higher ratings than France’s Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel in Germany.

“I still have strong popular backing, almost twice as much as my colleagues Merkel and Sarkozy,” he said. “In opinion polls, I personally have 36 per cent support. If I walk out in the street I stop the traffic. I am a public danger and I cannot go out to do the shopping!”

Mr Berlusconi’s declarations – which will doubtless be met with scepticism by his critics – could throw wide open the race to succeed the unelected Mr Monti who has also made clear that he will not stand for office when his mandate is over.

Mr Alfano’s bid for the party leadership is not assured. And the centre-left Democratic party, led by Pierluigi Bersani, is sorely divided over Mr Monti’s proposed labour reforms. Commentators anticipate a wholesale shake-up of Italian politics, with attention focusing on whether Corrado Passera – the former head of Intesa Sanpaolo, a major bank, chosen as industry minister by Mr Monti – will decide to run for office.

Showing flashes of his former combative self, Mr Berlusconi said Italy’s postwar constitution made the country virtually ungovernable and needed reforms to give the prime minister more authority, cut the number of small parties in parliament and limit the influence of what he called a leftist-dominated judiciary that meddled in politics.

“The hope is that this government, which is supported for the first time by the whole of parliament, will have the chance to propose great structural reforms, starting from the state’s institutional architecture, without which we cannot think of having a modern and truly free and democratic country,” he said.

While attacking the foreign media in particular for damaging his image abroad over his alleged personal scandals, Mr Berlusconi said he was “serene” about the outcome of his two separate trials on charges – which he denies – of corrupting his former UK lawyer to give false evidence, and having a relationship with an alleged underage prostitute.

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