Is one of Europe’s most flamboyant and controversial statesmen finally preparing to call it quits?
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi caused consternation in Italy this week when he announced he wouldn't seek reelection when his term ends in 2013. Nor would he be in the running to become the country’s president, as had been widely forecast.
But even though Mr. Berlusconi is engulfed in a sex scandal involving allegations of paying for prostitutes, this is a man who has compared himself with Napoleon, Jesus, and Superman. Few Italians envisage him shuffling off into the sunset to retirement.
His remarks regarding his future plans were made at a Rome dinner for foreign journalists on Monday. It was supposed to be a cozy, off-the-record briefing, but Berlusconi's comments were swiftly leaked.
Berlusconi, who first became prime minister of Italy 17 years ago and is now into his third stint in the job, said his justice minister, Angelino Alfano, could succeed him.
"If I'm needed as the noble father for the elections, I'll do it. I could be the name at the top of the electoral lists for my party, but I don't want an operative role," Berlusconi was quoted as saying.
He dismissed long-held rumors that he had his sights set on becoming Italy’s president, naming his right-hand man, Gianni Letta, as a more suitable candidate.
But it may be a little too early for the prime minister’s critics to start toasting his retirement. Some of his closest associates are already hinting that the prime minister’s pronouncement should be taken with a pinch of salt.
It could even be a ploy to build some support for another crack at winning a national election, said Denis Verdini, a close associate of the prime minister and a senior member of his center-right PDL party. "He wants people to say, 'prime minister, don't do it, run again," Verdini told La Stampa newspaper.
Even Berlusconi’s spokesman played down the remarks, saying they were “hypothetical” musings.
Commentators said that without Berlusconi, his party would struggle to survive – he founded it, forged it, and personifies it. And they said he is too ambitious to want to bow out of politics.
“I have absolute conviction that he wants to become president,” says Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst at Luiss University in Rome. “Age is not an issue – he boasts that he has the energy of a much younger man. The presidential term is seven years, which would make Berlusconi 83 at the end of it, but that is not unusual by Italian standards.”
Analysts also questioned the choice of Mr. Alfano as his anointed successor. Italy’s north-south divide remains as deep as ever and the fact that the justice minister is from Sicily could make him an unpalatable choice for the Northern League.
The League, the key partner in Berlusconi’s coalition, wants much greater autonomy for Italy’s rich north at the expense of southern regions like Sicily, which it views as feckless and corrupt.
Tellingly, Berlusconi said he would make his decision based on opinion polls. That would enable him to claim in a couple of years’ time that the clamor from his supporters is so strong that he has no choice but to run for office a fourth time.