Besieged Berlusconi signals he may bow out
BELEAGUERED Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has given his strongest hint to date that he may step aside and not seek re-election.
Mr Berlusconi even went so far as to indicate that his justice minister could be his possible successor as conservative leader.
The 74-year-old said he might still be involved in party politics in an elderly statesman's role, but would not play "an active role in the government". He said, however, that he will consult polls before making a decision.
Justice Minister Angelino Alfano, a close ally, is seen as the rising star.
Mr Berlusconi also dismissed speculation he might campaign to become president of the republic, a largely ceremonial role elected by parliament.
He said his right-hand man of many years, Gianni Letta, was an "extraordinary candidate" for the job.
Mr Berlusconi stepped into politics in 1994 from his media empire, winning elections within months of forming a political party. Since then, he has run in every election, winning two more times and losing twice.
The premier is also Italy's longest-serving premier, having survived corruption allegations, international gaffes and, more recently, sex scandals.
Mr Berlusconi announced in December that he would probably step aside at the end of the legislature in 2013. His comments to foreign journalists on Tuesday night strengthened the likelihood that his nearly two decades in power are coming to an end.
In remarks to a group of foreign journalists in Rome, the 74-year-old premier also said he briefly considered resigning over the crisis in Libya because of the close relations he had with Muammar Gaddafi.
The comments, from a private dinner, were originally intended to be off-the-record but were widely leaked to Italian news agencies and dominated many front pages yesterday.
"I think I will stay some time more, until there is someone to replace me," he said, but later added that he was tempted by the thought of sailing his yacht and did not expect to take an executive role or become Italian president.
After major Italian newspapers led front pages with the story, Mr Berlusconi's spokesman was forced to issue a statement saying the comments were to be understood "as simple hypotheses, an argument, possibly deduction".
Mr Berlusconi appeared in buoyant form, despite being besieged by a series of trials over tax fraud, bribery and lurid sex allegations.
Newspapers carried accounts of the dinner while pointing out that little of what Berlusconi said was very new.
"The Knight (Berlusconi) plays his last card. In 2013 it's Alfano's turn," headlined 'La Repubblica', the left-wing daily which is one of Berlusconi's fiercest critics.