Berlusconi, Force in Italy Politics, to Abandon Limelight

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian politics for almost two decades, said he won’t run for prime minister in elections next year and will focus on reinvigorating his sagging party.

His announcement was unveiled in a style befitting the flamboyant 76-year-old media magnate, soccer-team owner and three-time prime minister, using a mixture of sporting metaphors and proclamations of love for his homeland.

“Eighteen years ago I stepped on the soccer pitch, an act of folly not devoid of wisdom,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement released last night. “Now I prefer to take a step back for the same reasons that pushed me to act back then.”

The announcement will ease speculation about the political future of Italy’s longest-serving prime minister. Berlusconi wrote that he’ll still stand next to the younger generation taking his place because they “must also play and score goals.” He said he still had some “good muscles and some brains,” which he would use to proffer advice, without being intrusive, to those who could benefit from his memory.

“It was a difficult, no, extremely difficult decision” for Berlusconi, Marco Dell’Utri, a senator and former executive at Berlusconi’s Fininvest SpA media holding who is fighting a conviction for collusion with the Mafia, said in an interview with newspaper la Repubblica today. “He didn’t make the decision lightly. For him, it’s kind of an abdication.”

Primary

The yield on Italy’s 10-year bond fell 3 basis points to 4.815 percent and the benchmark FTSE MIB index added 0.2 percent to 15,733 at 9:30 a.m. in Rome.

Berlusconi said in the note that the political movement he founded in 1994 should hold primaries in December to pick its candidate for the premiership. Such a vote could pose a challenge to Angelino Alfano, the general secretary of the People of Liberty bloc, who Berlusconi had previously chosen to run the party.

Berlusconi’s party has been hurt by scandals involving regional politicians, and public support has fallen behind its traditional rival from the center left and the opposition movement of comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo. Berlusconi’s own standing has also been hurt by ongoing corruption trials, including one accusing the former premier of paying for sex with a minor.

Support Sagging

Support for the People of Liberty party fell to 14.3 percent from 15.1 percent in a poll released last week by SWG Institute. That compares with 21 percent for Grillo’s 5 Star Movement and 25.9 percent for the Democratic Party, according to SWG.

With self-confidence and bravura, Berlusconi cast a long shadow over Italian politics after exploiting his fame as a media mogul and one of the country’s richest men into winning his first election as premier in 1994. He won two other elections and served more than eight years as prime minister, an accomplishment in a country that has averaged almost a government a year since World War II.

While he failed to deliver the tax cuts and many of the free-market overhauls he had pledged, Berlusconi managed to win one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in Italian history in 2001, serving out a full term and showing that it was possible to build a lasting government.

Limits of Legacy

In what sounded like a farewell to the Italian people, Berlusconi reflected on his achievements and regrets.

“I am personally proud and conscious of the limits of my legacy,” he wrote in the statement, without dwelling on the specifics of his political shortcomings.

Berlusconi had words of praise for the man who succeeded him as premier: Mario Monti, an economist and former European commissioner whose style of governing could not be more different than that of the self-made billionaire.

“The prime minister and his collaborators did what they could which is a lot” given the conditions, Berlusconi said.

While Monti, who heads an unelected government of technocrats, has declined to run for a second term, politicians such as former Premier Romano Prodi say his reappointment is still a likely outcome, especially if the vote produces a hung parliament.

Berlusconi’s own ability to govern was often hampered by dissent among his disparate allies and his need to defend himself from corruption charges brought by the judges and prosecutors whom he dismissed as communists, “mentally disturbed” and out to destroy him politically.

Resignation

His final term ended with his resignation in November 2011 with the economy battered by contagion from the euro-region debt crisis and Berlusconi struggling to overcome the stigma of criminal charges over charges of prostitution with a minor, allegations that sapped confidence among investors and his European allies. The revelations about his relations with a 17- year-old nightclub dancer introduced Bunga Bunga into the political lexicon as a synonym for his sexual exploits and the parties he hosted with dozens of young women.

Berlusconi has denied sexual relations with the woman at the center of the charges.

Berlusconi was known more outside Italy for his gaffes than for his accomplishments. After Barack Obama became the first African-American elected to the U.S. presidency, Berlusconi quipped that he admired his suntan. He told a German lawmaker he’d make a great Nazi prison guard in a forthcoming movie.

Reports of Berlusconi’s sexual exploits and his regular diplomatic faux-pas helped alienate his European allies, who increasingly distanced themselves from the premier rather than stand shoulder-to-shoulder as debt woes spread and his government teetered.

For example, at an Oct. 23 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy began chuckling when asked whether they had confidence in Berlusconi.

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Frye in Rome at afrye@bloomberg.net;

Flavia Krause-Jackson in New York at fjackson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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