Berlusconi awaits left contest before comeback decision

ROME Mon Nov 26, 2012 8:40am EST

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks during a news conference at Villa Gernetto in Gerno near Milan October 27, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gestures as he speaks during a news conference at Villa Gernetto in Gerno near Milan October 27, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Alessandro Garofalo

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ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will wait to see who his center-left adversaries choose as their candidate for elections expected in March before deciding whether to run himself, he said on Monday.

In his latest switch of position, Berlusconi, who previously ruled out running, said he would wait to see whether the left chose frontrunner Democratic Party (PD) leader Pier Luigi Bersani, 61, or his younger rival Matteo Renzi in a second-round vote on December 2.

Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who is running as a modernizer and lagged former communist Bersani in a first-round vote on Sunday, would be a tougher rival to Berlusconi in the election to succeed Mario Monti as prime minister, a poll showed last week.

"With Renzi, Italy could have a Social Democratic party like other countries such as Germany and England," Berlusconi said in an interview with his Canale 5 television.

The 76-year-old media billionaire's once-dominant People of Freedom party (PDL) is third in opinion polls, trailing the PD by more than 10 percentage points and behind comic Beppe Grillo's nascent anti-establishment 5-Star Movement by about five points.

Berlusconi's credibility was reduced to tatters a year ago when he resigned to make room for Monti's technocrat government amid charges he had sex with an underage prostitute.

The magnate did not confirm reports in newspapers including Il Giornale, a right-wing daily owned by his family, that he would form a new party that could be unveiled later this week.

Italy needs a complete transformation, Berlusconi said.

"I think that it's right for someone who had the honor of leading the Italian government for almost 10 years to reflect on the way to achieve this modernization of Italy, this liberal revolution," he said.

UNCERTAINTY

Berlusconi's latest comments deepen the chaos in his divided PDL, which has been planning to hold a primary of its own on December 16 but which does not know whether it can go ahead with the vote because of Berlusconi's indecision.

Berlusconi, who created the PDL on the foundations of his old Forza Italia party, said that a decision on the primary would be taken "with a great deal of democracy".

A center-left primary on Sunday gave Bersani 45 percent of the first-round vote ahead of 35.5 percent for Renzi, thanks to support from traditional PD voters.

The center-left would gather 44 percent support in an election with Renzi as candidate but 35 percent with Bersani, according to an opinion poll last week by the CISE electoral research institute.

Although Bersani has more support from the left of the PD than Renzi, both candidates have pledged to stick to the Monti government's fiscal discipline and deficit-cutting targets.

Picking a center-left candidate will leave plenty of other questions unanswered in Italy's confused political situation.

While the center-left leads opinion polls, it may not win enough votes in both houses of parliament to rule without seeking new allies.

Adding to uncertainty, political wrangling has held up a deal to change the electoral law. Depending on what system replaces the unpopular current law, which allows party bosses to handpick candidates and gives a bonus to the largest party, the left could be forced to seek centrist coalition allies.

(Editing by Pravin Char and Jason Webb)

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