As Italy coalition forms, Berlusconi back in the saddle

AFP , Wednesday 24 Apr 2013

Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi will continue to exercise clout in Italian politics, analysts say

Guess who's back? The real winner as Italy's long political crisis comes to an end is none other than Silvio Berlusconi, a scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon and an international figure of fun.

The 76-year-old former prime minister is not expected to be included in the new cabinet being set up by moderate leftist Enrico Letta but there is no doubt among political observers that he will be a power behind the throne.

"Berlusconi cannot hide his delight about how this crisis has turned out," said Stefano Folli, a columnist for business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

Claudio Tito, a commentator for leftist newspaper La Repubblica, said the protracted deadlock had effectively handed Berlusconi "a blank cheque".

Berlusconi's People of Freedom party came a very close second to a centre-left coalition in February elections, receiving nearly a third of the vote mainly on the back of promises to ease taxes on austerity-hit Italians.

The main leftist Democratic Party initially ruled out any alliance with Berlusconi but had to change tack when its efforts to woo lawmakers from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) were repeatedly rebuffed.

Dismissed as a spent force in politics just a few months ago, a newly-invigorated Berlusconi insisted on a coalition government and was able to position himself as a moderate statesman working for the interests of Italy.

The Il Giornale daily, which is owned by the Berlusconi family, crowed that he was "taking the country on his shoulders... and provoking universal consensus".

Berlusconi said the only alternative to a coalition would be repeat elections and opinion polls indicate his party would win any new polls -- mainly due to a drop in popularity for the M5S.

"The real victor in this whole crisis is Berlusconi," said Stefano Rodota, an academic and civil rights advocate who was put forward by the M5S as its presidential candidate but was beaten by Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday.

Berlusconi "is imposing his conditions" on the new government, Rodota was quoted as saying in an interview with leftist daily Il Manifesto.

But some analysts pointed out that was not quite true as Berlusconi would have preferred Giuliano Amato, a former prime minister with a more neutral reputation, to be nominated for premier.

Other commentators said Berlusconi may be looking beyond, aiming for the presidency once the newly-elected Napolitano resigns early from his seven-year term, as he is expected to do.

Political commentator Barbara Spinelli said it was not difficult to imagine Berlusconi as head of state "on the horizon, and not a distant one".

The madia magnate's legal woes took second place during a two-month deadlock since elections, although his appeal trial against a tax fraud conviction and his trial for having sex with an underage prostitute are set to resume in May.

As Letta was nominated on Wednesday, the benchmark stock index in Milan was down but shares in Berlusconi's Mediaset television empire were trading sharply, up by 1.8 percent -- an indication of the boost this deal has given him.

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