Berlusconi says will not stand again
ROME – Italy's Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday that he would not run in elections early next year and hand his People of Freedom party over to a successor, ending months of uncertainty over his candidacy.
"I will not be presenting my candidacy but I will remain at the side of younger people who can play and score goals," said the media magnate, who founded the party in 2009 and is famous for talking politics in football terms.
The 76-year-old tycoon, who owns AC Milan football club and three national television channels as well as several private villas, said in a statement that his successor would be appointed by the end of December following a party vote.
"I still have good muscles and a head on my shoulders, but my role will be to give advice," he said, adding that the vote may take place December 16.
"For the love of Italy one can do crazy and wise things. Eighteen years ago I came onto the scene, a mad move that did not lack wisdom: I now take a step back," the billionaire said, putting to an end speculation over his return. The move came as his scandal-hit PDL party tries to boost its credibility following a series of investigations into misuse of party funds.
"Berlusconi's pulling out? It's time for the 'Berlusconi way' to pull out too, for Italy to clean itself of 20 years of intellectual numbness. Bye bye Berlusconi," said Nichi Vendola, head of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party.
The former prime minister had retreated from the political frontlines after handing over power in November 2011 to former European competition commissioner Mario Monti amid a parliamentary revolt and a wave of financial market panic.
There had been speculation since then as to whether he would try a comeback.
The PDL has suffered a series of local election setbacks and is riven by infighting, and many supporters had been urging Berlusconi to return to lead the party in the upcoming elections, set for April next year.
Berlusconi said it was now up to party secretary Angelino "Alfano and a new generation of young people to reproduce the miracle of 1994," when the man famed for his love of wild parties was first appointed prime minister.
His decision to step aside revealed fears that he could not hope to muster enough support to lead Italy's centre-right to victory.
The head of the Northern League party – Berlusconi's former coalition ally – called the move "an act of generosity which I appreciate and which opens new perspectives for the future."
The former premier, who was seen as a blast of fresh air when he burst onto the scene in the 1990s after a period of political corruption and scandal, has been hit hard by his own fraud and sex scandals and has lost many supporters.
The PDL has been unable to persuade smaller centrist parties to join forces with them for the upcoming elections despite several attempts at deal-making. Berlusconi will be hoping that a fresh face at the head of the party can help it regain ground in the polls.
He has voiced support for the idea of the technocrat Monti staying on after his mandate ends as the head of a centre-right government – though Monti has repeatedly said he will not stay unless the elections end in a deadlock.
In his statement on Wednesday, the former premier praised the efforts made by the government to tackle the debt crisis pounding Italy.
Monti "and his collaborators have done what they can, a lot... in the conditions under which our economy and society has had to face the great financial crisis," he said.
"Mistakes have been made, some of which can be fixed... but the path of reform and deregulation has been mostly clear," he said.
The former premier has been fighting legal battles for 20 years. Despite some initial convictions for fraud and lingering accusations of alliances with convicted crooks, all cases against him were won on appeal or have expired.
He is currently on trial for fraud, bribery and paying for sex with a 17-year-old prostitute nick-named "Ruby the Heart Stealer".
The sex trial was one of the last in a series of scandals that helped precipitate the media tycoon's downfall. AFP