Italy's Tajani agrees to be Berlusconi's PM choice ahead of vote

ROME (Reuters) - European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said on Thursday he would stand as candidate for prime minister for former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, or “Go Italy!” party, in the March 4 vote.

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Berlusconi, 81, has served as Italy’s prime minister four times, but is barred from holding public office until 2019 because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction.

Berlusconi had announced on Tuesday that Tajani, a Forza Italia co-founder in 1994, was his preferred premier candidate in the parliamentary election, but said Tajani had not yet accepted the offer.

On Thursday, Tajani responded on Twitter, thanking Berlusconi for “his gesture of great respect toward me. I told him that I was willing to serve Italy.”

Berlusconi welcomed Tajani’s announcement shortly after an appearance on a talk show on one of the media magnate’s own TV channels.

“I know it’s a shame to take Antonio Tajani away from Europe, but it’s in the best interest of Italy,” Berlusconi said.

Tajani, 64, has been one of Berlusconi’s most loyal lieutenants, staying by his side when the veteran leader, engulfed by sex scandals, was forced to resign as prime minister in 2011 at the height of a sovereign debt crisis.

Friday is the last day of campaigning allowed before the Sunday vote. Berlusconi’s center-right alliance was seen winning the most seats before a poll blackout came into force on Feb. 16, but still falling short of a governing majority.

Berlusconi’s coalition partners include the anti-migrant League and nationalist Brothers of Italy. They have agreed that if the bloc wins an absolute majority on Sunday, the party which takes the most votes can pick the next premier.

Polls had showed Forza Italia maintaining a steady lead over the League. Ultimately, it is President Sergio Mattarella who makes the choice.

Tajani was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and has spent much of his political career in Brussels, becoming president of the EU assembly in January, 2017 when Martin Schulz left the job to return to national German politics.

His pro-European credentials means he will not be welcomed with open arms by either of his coalition partners, which are both euroskeptical.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; editing by Diane Craft