Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (L) holds the hand of the former justice minister Angelino Alfano after Alfano was elected as new party's national political secretary during the PDL party national congress in Rome, Friday, (Reuters).
Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano was elected leader of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party on Friday and the Sicilian lawyer is now a top contender to succeed the media magnate at the helm of the centre right.
Berlusconi named Alfano the first secretary-general of his People of Freedom (PDL) party last month in a bid to revive its electoral fortunes, and the 40-year-old is regarded as an acolyte of the party's founder.
Alfano faces the task of restructuring a party that has been based almost entirely around Berlusconi ahead of a parliamentary election in 2013. PDL suffered a drubbing in local elections in the wake of corruption scandals and a weak economy.
"We have to create a serious party," Alfano said to wild applause at a party conference where he was formally appointed. "It will be a party in which everyone can participate."
Youthful by Italian standards, Alfano became the youngest justice minister in Italy's history when he took the post in May 2008. Soon afterwards, he crafted a law sheltering Berlusconi from trials that was later scrapped by the Constitutional Court.
Critics say Alfano is a Berlusconi yes-man who has happily backed the prime minister's personal war against the judiciary and magistrates without regard for constitutional principles.
He has justified his actions by maintaining that "when one is attacked, it is his right to defend himself".
Alfano says he was first attracted to Berlusconi when he saw the entrepreneur on a television show in 1994. He joined the billionaire tycoon's Forza Italia party the same year.
"When I was 23 I saw a businessman on television who had a passion for freedom, who had the sun in his pocket," Alfano said. "I heard some extraordinary music, and seeing that man I unilaterally decided to join Forza Italia."
Despite promising to reform Italy's snail-paced justice system, Alfano has been accused by critics of doing little to modernise the system. They say his focus has been on drafting laws aimed at protecting Berlusconi from ongoing trials.
His defenders say politics prevented him from doing more.
"Alfano is a competent and capable person," said Giovanni La Via, a member of the PDL in the European Parliament. "Despite being in politics for 17 years, no one has been able to pin any accusations on him.
"If he hasn't done more at the ministry, it's because conditions have not allowed him to do so."