November 26, 2012 5:58 pm

Berlusconi set for comeback, claim allies

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Down but not out, Silvio Berlusconi is according to some of his allies preparing to launch his political comeback this week through a new party that will challenge a resurgent centre-left in Italy’s general elections early next year.

The former three-time prime minister, who resigned a year ago to make way for Mario Monti’s technocrat government, was reported to be ready to quit as leader of his centre-right People of Liberty (PDL) and announce on Thursday his intention to form a new party.

Supporters of the 76-year-old media mogul saw Mr Berlusconi’s attempted comeback as his answer to the chaos reigning within his fragmenting PDL. Critics saw it as a desperate move to maintain his relevance while facing two trials on charges of tax fraud and paying for a juvenile prostitute.

“The story between Silvio Berlusconi and the PDL, his political creation, is finished,” declared Il Giornale, a Milan daily belonging to the Berlusconi family empire. It said the new “political subject” would be called Forza Italia after the first party he founded in 1993.

Il Giornale did not say whether Mr Berlusconi would run as prime minister in elections, expected to be held next March 10, or what line the new party would take.

However, a senator close to Mr Berlusconi told the Financial Times the ex-premier would not run as a candidate to lead the government, and that the new party could champion a second term in office for Mr Monti. Another parliamentarian cautioned that Mr Berlusconi was still undecided.

Mr Berlusconi’s repeated U-turns over his intentions have kept Italy and financial markets on edge. Recently he has turned hostile towards Mr Monti’s government even while his party supports the unelected technocrats in parliament.

However, Mr Berlusconi seemed to change his tune on Monday, blaming Italy’s deep recession on Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“Monti has certianly carried out a beautiful experience this last year, although unfortunately he has been indulgent towards the austerity policy imposed by Merkel which has brought the country into a very serious recessionary spiral,” he told a breakfast show on one of his television channels.

Massimo Franco, columnist for Corriere della Sera, a leading daily, said Mr Berlusconi was driven by the need to have “a faithful party that will guarantee him his own personal defence”.

“His is not a hope for victory but to condition the next moves. His calculations are more private than public,” Mr Franco commented.

Supporters of Mr Berlusconi said he had waited before making his move until after the outcome of primary elections held by centre-left parties on Sunday.

Over 3.1m Italians took part, some waiting for over two hours to register and cast their vote in a turnout that was much higher than expected by sceptics who said a national mood of disillusionment with politicians would keep them at home. By comparison, France’s primary that launched François Hollande’s candidacy for the Socialists drew some 2.5m voters last year.

Pier Luigi Bersani, Democratic party leader, won 44.9 per cent of the vote among five candidates and will face Matteo Renzi, the reformist mayor of Florence who took 35.5 per cent, in a run-off this Sunday.

Despite a spirited campaign that shook what Mr Renzi calls party “dinosaurs”, the 37-year-old mayor is unlikely to upset the odds with a victory, leaving Mr Bersani as a frontrunner to form a coalition government next year.

Polls last week gave the Democrats support of some 27 per cent of the electorate, followed by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, an activist comedian who wants a national referendum on Italy staying in the euro. Mr Berlusconi’s PDL is languishing in third place with about 15 per cent.

But with about half the electorate undecided, Mr Berlusconi believes the centre-right has a chance of revival, possibly in alliance with smaller centrist groups campaigning for a second Monti term in office.

Mr Bersani, a former communist backed by the main leftwing trade union, would make an easier target for Mr Berlusconi to campaign against than Mr Renzi who says his reforms would be bolder than those taken by Mr Monti’s technocrats.

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