ROME Two months after placing first in a vote but falling short of winning power, Italy's main center-left party is still divided over whether to swallow its animosity and consider a government with its scandal-plagued nemesis, Silvio Berlusconi.
Italy has been in limbo since a February election gave no bloc enough votes to govern alone. The center left won a majority in the lower house but not in the Senate, and a huge protest vote for the populist 5-Star Movement has split parliament three ways.
Center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani has so far rebuffed repeated overtures from center-right leader Berlusconi to form a coalition, while failing in his own attempts to woo 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo to form an alliance. The result has been deadlock.
Some prominent members of Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) have started to challenge his approach, with Florence mayor Matteo Renzi urging him on Thursday either to agree to a coalition with Berlusconi or demand a new election.
PD deputy and former leader Dario Franceschini opened up to negotiations with Berlusconi in an interview with Corriere della Sera daily on Saturday, saying it was time for the PD to "abandon the superiority complex".
"Whether we like it or not, Italians have decided that (Berlusconi) is head of the right, a right who received almost the same amount of votes as us. It is him we need to speak to," Franceschini said.
He stopped short of backing Berlusconi's plan for a broad coalition, saying instead there was room to discuss a transitional government that could carry out pressing reforms for the economy, which is stuck in a deep recession.
Echoing Franceschini's views, the head of the PD in the lower house, Roberto Speranza, told Corriere on Sunday that Berlusconi's legitimacy comes from the votes he receives, which he said can't be considered "second class votes".
The comments in favor of dialogue with Berlusconi, whose multiple trials and sex scandals have left him discredited in the eyes of many politicians, prompted other members of the PD to reaffirm their opposition to any kind of discussion with his People of Freedom (PDL) party.
Senator Laura Puppato said on her web site that suggestions of forming a government with Berlusconi were "a catastrophe for Italy and for the PD".
Another PD Senator, Felice Casson, said on Saturday the party must show "absolute closure" to Berlusconi.
"We can't allow ourselves to have anything to do with him for all that he represents," Italian news agency ANSA quoted him as saying during a party conference.
Former prime minister Berlusconi was forced from power in 2011 by a mounting debt crisis. The 76-year-old media billionaire is appealing against a conviction for tax fraud and is accused of paying for sex with a minor in a separate case.
But he is once-more a key player on Italy's political scene, with recent polls showing his center-right alliance could come out on top in any new election.
On Saturday he said his party was ready to present eight bills to parliament, including a proposal to abolish a hated housing tax, in an attempt to seize the initiative despite the deadlock.
Prominent members of Berlusconi's PDL have welcomed the more open approach of some center-left lawmakers.
"Only Bersani and a group of faithful are still anchored to a strategy that makes no sense," said Renato Brunetta, the PDL's lower house leader. "The rest of the PD is asking about possible solutions to the deadlock...for them too the moment for dialogue with the PDL has arrived."
(Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Peter Graff)