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Berlusconi keeps Italy guessing over political comeback
ROME (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday dashed supporters' hopes that he would at last announce his candidacy for coming elections and remove one element in Italy's chronic political uncertainty.
Berlusconi failed to turn up for his annual appointment at a major youth rally near the ancient Colosseum in Rome where his supporters had wanted him to finally launch the political comeback that top aides have predicted for weeks.
"I am sorry that Berlusconi has chosen, for the first time not to take part in the traditional meeting with young people," said rally organizer Giorgia Meloni. "To deny them this chance for tactical reasons is in my opinion a shame."
The scandal-plagued media magnate, 75, one of Italy's richest men, was forced from office last November when the euro zone debt crisis pushed the bloc's third largest economy close to a Greek-style meltdown.
Replaced by respected technocrat Mario Monti, his chances of returning to high office looked remote as he was jeered from power by hostile crowds after dominating Italy for 17 years.
He has kept a low profile since then but the born showman is said to be unhappy out of the limelight and the fortunes of his People of Freedom (PDL) party have slumped, under assault from populist forces that have exploited wide public disgust with politicians.
PDL officials, including Berlusconi's personal protégé and party secretary Angelino Alfano, have said repeatedly he will be a candidate in elections which must be held by next April.
But Berlusconi himself seems torn by indecision, unable to make a proper calculation of his chances of success because of the multiple uncertainties in Italy's unstable political landscape, which is causing jitters amongst investors.
Berlusconi posted a message on his Facebook page saying: "As the Bible says, there is a time for speaking and a time to reflect. Today, faced by so much confusion, it is better to reflect."
But many of the crowd of several hundred PDL supporters were angry that Berlusconi did not turn up for the rally of a party he founded.
"A bad gesture...as prime minister he always came. Now that the situation is different he is not coming. I am not happy," said Silvia, a young member of the party from the northern city of Padua, who did not give her second name.
The PDL has been arguing for weeks with the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) which is the front runner in opinion polls, over which voting system should be used in the election.
In addition, the PD is itself riven by divisions and plans primary elections, probably in November, to choose an electoral candidate.
The parties are also maneuvering over possible coalition alliances with the centrist UDC which is toying with which side it will join.
Berlusconi seems to want to wait longer, to see which electoral law will be used, while studying opinion polls and moves amongst other parties, to assess whether he can build decent support in an election or face the risk of a humiliating defeat.
He is also concerned about protecting his business and personal interests in combating a string of corruption charges and the "Rubygate" scandal, in which he is accused of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute.
An opinion poll earlier this week showed the once-dominant PDL improving its support slightly to just over 20 percent but still behind the PD which was on more than 25 percent.
However, analysts say the PDL is paralyzed by Berlusconi's indecision and has faded from the political scene.
Some polls show the PDL without Berlusconi would barely garner 10 percent support. Meanwhile the populist Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo is snapping at their heels with around 14 percent.
Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the Catholic centrists of the UDC, is pushing to bring Monti back as prime minister after the election to continue the reforms that restored Italy's international reputation after the removal of Berlusconi.
Many senior Italian business leaders and international investors fear that if Monti is replaced by a purely political government the country could renege on the technocrat prime minister's tough austerity program.
(Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci, writing by Barry Moody)
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