ROME Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi kept the country guessing over his political future on Monday, hinting at a comeback but holding back from declaring that he planned to run in next year's general election.
In an interview published on Monday he said he would rename his center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party with its original title Forza Italia (Go Italy), adding to signs that he is planning a return to frontline politics.
When asked if he would be a candidate for premier next year, he said: "I am often and insistently asked to do this. I can only say this much, I will never let my People of Freedom party down."
"Incidentally, we are soon going back to the old party name, Forza Italia," he told Germany's Bild daily.
But in a sign of the fragmented state of his camp, just hours later he issued a statement saying he had been "misunderstood" and that he had only suggested discussing the party name, following criticism from a number of allies.
Forza Italia, the political party Berlusconi created when he became prime minister for the first time in 1994, was merged with the former National Alliance to become the PDL in 2008 and clear differences still exist between the factions.
"I'm not going to Forza Italia. We're allies, yes, we're not subjects," tweeted former minister Giorgia Meloni, once of the National Alliance.
There was more discouragement from a survey by pollsters Demos in the left-leaning La Repubblica, which found that 54 percent of those questioned believed Berlusconi was the person most responsible for changing Italy for the worse in the past 30 years.
Party leaders have said Berlusconi will be the center-right's candidate next year but the uncertainty over his plans adds to the confused picture ahead of the elections in which technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti has ruled out running.
Italy's borrowing costs are now back to within sight of the levels they reached when the crisis broke out a year ago as the political uncertainty has added a further element of doubt for investors already wary of the euro zone turmoil.
NORTHERN LEAGUE SCEPTICAL
Berlusconi, who still faces trial over accusations he paid for sex with a teenager, has kept a relatively low profile since he was forced from office last year in the middle of a financial crisis that threatened to force Italy to default on its 1.9 trillion euro ($2.3 trillion) public debt.
Opinion polls suggest the PDL and its allies would lose to a center-left bloc in the election but supporters hope a return by the charismatic Berlusconi would help unify the center-right and win back voters who deserted in droves in local polls in May.
However Berlusconi's former allies in the Northern League have been cagey about pledging support and talkback shows on the party's Radio Padania station have been inundated with listeners angry at the prospect of a new coalition with the former leader.
"I would like to understand what's going on," said Northern League leader Roberto Maroni, who replaced Berlusconi's old partner Umberto Bossi after a graft scandal. "In any case, alliances are at the bottom of my agenda at the moment."
Monti's austerity policies have aroused strong opposition in Italy but the former European Commissioner has international credibility and has transformed the way Italy is regarded by European partners after the scandal-filled Berlusconi years.
Berlusconi, however, points to the recent rise in Italian bond yields as evidence that last year's crisis was not down to his government and he has stepped up his anti-European rhetoric to match a growing mood of euro-skepticism in Italy.
In recent weeks he has spoken openly about the prospect of Italy leaving the euro, although he said he did not believe that the single currency would be allowed to fail. He called on Germany to soften its strict pro-austerity stance.
"We want a more European Germany and not a more German Europe," he said.
"At the moment, you can feel a certain German position of predominance in Europe and exactly for that reason, we would like to see European policies from Berlin that are far-sighted, open and in solidarity."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Jucca in Milan; Editing by Jon Boyle and Pravin Char)