* Berlusconi given little chance of electoral victory
* Hopes to deprive centre-left of overall majority
* Seen attacking PD "communist" leader, promising tax cuts
By Gavin Jones
ROME, Dec 8 Four times prime minister Silvio
Berlusconi has never been afraid to take a gamble during the 17
years in which he has dominated Italian politics and his
decision to run for office again at the age of 76 seems like a
final roll of the dice.
Berlusconi confirmed the long-expected news almost casually
on Saturday, telling reporters at a training field of his AC
Milan soccer club that he had reluctantly decided to run. In an
entry on his Facebook page, he said he had tried in vain to find
a worthy successor.
"It's not that we haven't looked. We have, and how! But
there isn't one," he wrote.
The popularity of his People of Freedom (PDL) party is at
an all-time low of around 15 percent and his international
credibility is still in tatters a year after he was driven from
office by his inability to tackle a mounting debt crisis.
Berlusconi's advisers urged him not to return, yet after a
year of political, business and legal setbacks the
scandal-plagued media tycoon probably felt he had nothing to
He was sentenced in October to four years in prison for tax
fraud, although a long appeals process will keep him out of jail
and may overturn the ruling, and risks another sentence in an
ongoing trial for having sex with an under-aged prostitute.
The share price of his Mediaset broadcasting company has
lost around 40 percent since he left office, deprived of his
Even physically, Berlusconi seems a shadow of his former
self. He has stayed in the background for most of the last year
and, after several face lifts and hair transplants, often
appears puffy and is finally starting to look his age.
Yet for all this, the aged gun-slinger should not be
completely written off.
He still enjoys a hard-core of support among millions of
Italians, and if there is one thing Berlusconi is good at it is
He has won three out of five since he first shook up Italian
politics in 1994 and has always performed better than expected,
unlike the centre-left which is famous for polling below
forecasts at national ballots.
Another victory will almost certainly be beyond him but he
may just garner enough support to deprive the centre-left of a
clear majority, giving him a say in the make-up of whatever
government can be formed after the election expected in March.
He is now likely to run on a platform that seeks to tap
discontent towards the austerity policies of technocrat Prime
Minister Mario Monti whom he has supported in parliament for the
"I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral
without end, it's not possible to go on like this," he said in a
statement on Wednesday.
"Today Italy is on the edge of an abyss: the economy is
exhausted, a million more are unemployed, purchasing power has
collapsed, tax pressure is rising to intolerable levels."
The market reaction to his announcement was a measure of how
he is mistrusted by investors, with Italian shares turning
negative and its bond yields immediately rising.
Berlusconi doubtless knows his international reputation is
irredeemable, but he cares much more about resurrecting his
appeal to the self-employed, small businessmen and relatively
uneducated masses who have always backed him in the past.
The centre-left Democratic Party's (PD) commanding lead in
opinion polls, with more than 30 percent of backing, has been
built up in the absence of any centre-right leadership and
boosted by its much publicised primary to elect a leader.
The result of that ballot was another factor that convinced
Berlusconi to come back.
By electing the dour, 61 year-old former communist Pier
Luigi Bersani over the young, telegenic mayor of Florence Matteo
Renzi, the PD gave Berlusconi the chance to play the
anti-communist card that has served him well in the past.
A showdown between Berlusconi and Bersani, with a combined
age of 137, may be an unappealing prospect for a country in
desperate need of renewal, but it is one which Berlusconi
believes at least gives him a chance.