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‘If I could, I would leave now’, says Berlusconi

Eleven years into the job, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has told reporters he has had enough of running the country. His comments follow a string of electoral blows that suggest Italian voters may have had enough of him.


Seventeen years have gone by since Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man, announced he was entering politics. The man nicknamed Il Cavaliere has spent eleven of them in power, becoming Italy’s longest-serving prime minister since Benito Mussolini. But there will be no fourth term, it seems.

On Friday, Berlusconi ruled out running for the premiership again when elections are due in 2013, confirming Justice Minister Angelino Alfano as his successor. Alfano, a 40-year-old politician, was named secretary-general of the ruling People of Freedom party earlier this month.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, which was published Friday, Berlusconi was asked if he would run for re-election in 2013. “Absolutely not,” replied the billionaire premier, before adding, “If I could, I would leave now.”

The 74-year-old media mogul said he would like to play the role of “noble father” to Alfano, a native of Sicily best known as the author of two laws designed to shield the prime minister from the courts, both of which were overturned by the Constitutional Court.

“But at 77, I couldn’t continue serving as prime minister,” he added.

Berlusconi also moved to silence speculation about a forthcoming run for the Italian presidency, citing his most trusted aide Gianni Letta as a possible candidate instead.

The ruse that backfired

The comments cap another tumultuous week in Italian politics, marked by squabbles within the ruling centre-right coalition and the latest accusations of conflict of interest levelled at the prime minister.

On Tuesday, Berlusconi was forced to hastily withdraw a controversial measure that would have allowed Fininvest, his family investment company, to avoid paying a €750 million fine for corruption.

The measure, buried in Italy’s €47 billion ($68 billion) austerity plan, was uncovered earlier this week by the office of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and picked up by the Italian press.

Opposition parties said it was indicative of the sort of behaviour Italian voters had overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum last month, when they shot down a law that partially shielded Berlusconi and other top officials from prosecution while in office.

While the ensuing furore soon died down, it offered yet another reminder of the confusion between national and personal interests that has been the hallmark of Berlusconi’s 11-year tenure.

Berlusconi’s aura dimmed

Even by the exceptional standards of Il Cavaliere, this has been an eventful year, marked by the resumption of a long-standing trial on corruption charges and the start of criminal proceedings over allegations Berlusconi paid for sex with underage prostitutes and abused his power to silence the affair.

But while the prime minister has proved astonishingly resistant to scandals involving his business dealings and his private life, voters have been less forgiving in times of economic hardship.

Italy has managed to keep its economy afloat even as other Mediterranean countries drowned in debt. But with the dreaded ratings agencies now breathing down its neck, the government has rushed to prepare an unpopular austerity package.

“Berlusconi’s electorate has long been impermeable to the scandals, but the prime minister is starting to pay the price for the country’s economies woes,” said La Repubblica’s Francesco Bei in an interview with FRANCE24.

Flagging poll ratings and resounding defeats in local elections – including in his stronghold of Milan – have taken the shine off Berlusconi’s aura of invincibility. Some in his own camp have even dared suggest the unthinkable: that their leader has become more of a liability than a match winner.

According to La Repubblica’s Bei, if Il Cavaliere’s increasingly restless allies in the ruling Northern League decide to ditch him, the journey could well end before the 2013 general election. “The League knows very well Berlusconi’s train is heading for Cassandra Crossing and it is time to get off,” he said.

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