Beleaguered Berlusconi hints he won't run for re-election
EMBATTLED Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suggested last night that he may not stand for re-election when his term expires in 2013.
Mr Berlusconi also named Angelino Alfano, a former justice minister, as a possible successor.
"At the end of the legislative term, I will have been in politics for 20 years, an enormous period because political life is dramatically tough," he said at a rally of youth supporters of his People of Freedom party.
"So if I declined a request from my party to put forward my candidature, I would be justified," he said, adding that he would decide when the time came.
His announcement came as the opposition turned up the heat on Mr Berlusconi surrounding the prostitution scandal. The latest claim suggests that Mr Berlusconi told Valter Lavitola, a shadowy consultant now wanted by police, to stay out of Italy during an investigation into an alleged extortion plot against the premier, in which Mr Lavitola was suspected to be involved.
Niccolo Ghedini, Mr Berlusconi's lawyer, said in a statement that the accusation, based on a police phone tap, was "absurd and baseless".
But the story was reported on the front pages of major Italian dailies yesterday, bringing renewed calls from the opposition for Mr Berlusconi to resign.
"This telephone call is the cherry on the cake," Enrico Letta, a senior member of the opposition Democratic Party, told 'La Repubblica'.
"The prime minister is not leading the country, which in fact has no leader," he said, adding that Mr Berlusconi should step aside.
Naples magistrates have issued a warrant for Mr Lavitola's arrest, but his whereabouts are unknown and he is believed to be outside Italy.
Mr Berlusconi is due to be questioned by magistrates next week as a witness in the case.
The latest accusations add to the chaos surrounding the centre-right government's efforts to handle the financial crisis that has left Italy dependent on support from the European Central Bank to keep funding its €1.9 trillion public debt.
Italy's European partners have watched with undisguised incredulity as different factions in the government have squabbled over the heavily revised package, which has changed shape repeatedly over recent weeks.
After repeated calls for action from the ECB, a €54bn austerity plan to balance the budget by 2013 is now going through parliament, including a hike to value added tax and changes to pension rules as well as government spending cuts.