Berlusconi likely to run again for PM in spring elections



in Rome

The return of 76-year-old Silvio Berlusoni as the centre right's candidate for prime minister at next spring's general elections was looking almost certain last night following his party's decision to withdraw its support from the 11-month-old cross party, technocrat government of former EU commissioner Mario Monti.

In votes on key economic measures in both houses yesterday and on Thursday, Mr Berlusconi's People Of Freedom (PDL) party abstained.

In so doing the PDL distanced itself from the Monti government without prompting a parliamentary defeat.

Nervous markets

Speaking in the lower house yesterday, PDL party secretary Angelino Alfano said that the PDL considered the Monti "government experience" to be "concluded".

On Thursday, Mr Alfano had indicated that Mr Berlusconi had decided to return to lead the PDL.

The spectre of the return of scandal-plagued Mr Berlusconi prompted market nervousness, with the Italo-German 10-year bond-spread climbing immediately.

Last night the spread closed at 323 basis points, up from the figure of 292 touched on Monday. When Mr Monti replaced Mr Berlusconi in government office in November of last year, the spread stood at more than 550 points.

In a tense session in parliament both the leaders of the Democratic Party (PD) and the ex-Christian Democrat UDC, Pierluigi Bersani and Pierferdinando Casini, accused Mr Berlusconi of political opportunism and irresponsibility.

Mr Bersani also argued that Italy owed its current economic difficulties largely to eight years of Berlusconi government in the last decade.

Anti-austerity campaign

On one level, little has changed following yesterday given that the forthcoming general elections were due to be held next spring, in any case.

Mr Berlusconi, however, has opted to pull the plug now so as to get into election campaign mode, a campaign that will almost certainly be based on anti-Monti, anti-austerity, anti-property tax, anti-Germany and anti-EU positions.

For the time being, no formal government crisis has been declared but, in practice, the election campaign has well and truly begun. This could, too, be an election that will test even Mr Berlusconi's legendary campaigning abilities.

An opinion poll published yesterday by Rome daily La Repubblica suggests that the PDL vote has shrunk from 37.4 per cent in 2008 to 18.2 per cent this week. In the same period, the PD vote has gone from 33.2 per cent to 37.8 per cent.

Furthermore, Mr Berlusconi returns a 20.8 per cent approval rating as a leader, while PD leader Bersani returns a 50.1 per cent rating.