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Italy's Berlusconi makes clear his PM choice will be Tajani

ROME (Reuters) - Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday he planned to propose Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament, as prime minister if his center-right bloc wins Italy’s March 4 election.

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However, Berlusconi said that Tajani, who helped him found his Forza Italia (Go Italy!) party in 1994, had not yet given him a green light to announce the decision.

“Because of the very important role he fills, he has asked me to put forward his name only when he gives me the go-ahead,” Berlusconi told Rai Radio, nonetheless leaving no doubt that his one-time spokesman would get the nod.

“Everyone can understand that he would be an excellent candidate because Italy doesn’t count for anything anymore in Europe or in the world. He would count an awful lot because he is the president of the European institution which is directly elected by European citizens.”

Tajani declined to comment when asked in Brussels about Berlusconi’s remarks. The 64-year-old has repeatedly visited Italy in recent weeks campaigning for the center-right alliance and has not played down speculation that Berlusconi would pick him.

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

His centre-right/far-right alliance, which also includes the anti-migrant League and nationalist Brothers of Italy, has agreed that if it wins an absolute majority on Sunday, the party which takes the most votes can pick the next premier. The name must then be approved by the head of state Sergio Mattarella.

Before a poll blackout came into force on Feb. 16, surveys suggested the center-right would win most seats but fall short of a governing majority. Polls also showed Forza Italia maintaining a steady lead over the League.

Tajani, has been one of Berlusconi’s his 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.

He 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 the League or Brothers of Italy, which are both euroskeptical. The League in particular wants Italy to quit the euro currency as soon as is politically feasible.

By choosing Tajani, Berlusconi would send a calming message to EU allies and financial markets that any center-right government would not be hostile to the European Union.

Tajani has also looked to reassure moderates within Italy who might be alarmed by the far-right nature of Forza Italia’s closest allies, appearing in public twice this month with Pope Francis’s right-hand man, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

If the center-right does not win a majority, many political analysts believe Forza Italia will split away from its partners and seek to build a coalition government with the ruling center-left Democratic Party, although Berlusconi has denied this.

Reporting by Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Jon Boyle