AFP – Silvio Berlusconi’s re-election bid was thrown into fresh doubt on Sunday as his support among party stalwarts and a right-wing splinter group eroded ahead of a campaign for February elections in Italy.
Just over a week after the three-time prime minister announced his candidacy, his People of Freedom (PDL) party’s national secretary Angelino Alfano told a convention in Rome that a run by outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti would avoid “handing the country back to the left and dragging Italy backwards”.
Roberto Formigoni, governor of the wealthy northern Lombardy region, said: “Today we are all for Monti to be candidate for prime minister.”
Former foreign minister Franco Frattini said: “Mario Monti and the Monti agenda have interpreted well the idea of the common good.”
“I hope they will continue interpreting it in the next parliament not because other European countries want this but because Italians need it.”
The 76-year-old Berlusconi has himself sown confusion by saying he is willing to drop his candidacy if Monti runs, adding to domestic and international pressure on the technocrat prime minister to spell out his intentions.
Berlusconi reiterated his offer on Sunday, saying in a note to his supporters that Monti “shares my, your and our ideals” and calling for an end to “sterile disputes” within his own party.
Recent polls have shown that what would be Berlusconi’s sixth election campaign in two decades would end in a crushing defeat at the hands of a resurgent centre-left, and political observers have said he may be looking for a way out.
The current favourite is centre-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, a cigar-chomping ex-communist who has promised to follow Monti’s reforms but also do more for “jobs and equity”.
Berlusconi was forced out in November 2011 following a parliamentary revolt from within his own party, as well as a wave of panic on the financial markets and a surge of sex scandals.
Monti, a former top European commissioner and a respected economics professor, was voted in by parliament as Berlusconi’s replacement at the head of an unelected, technocratic government charged with saving Italy from the brink of bankruptcy.
Monti has governed for the past year with cross-party support in parliament, but that came to an end earlier this month when the PDL withdrew its backing, bringing forward to February elections that had been expected in March or April.
Meanwhile at another congress in Rome, Giorgia Meloni, a leader of the PDL’s more right-wing youth division, said she opposed both Berlusconi and Monti.
“We choose a different centre-right because the one we have is no good and we don’t want to settle for it!” Meloni said to cheers from her supporters.
“Monti for us is not the horizon, and a Berlusconi candidacy would be a mistake,” said Meloni, who put her name forward as a candidate for primaries to pick the nominee that have since been cancelled.
The PDL has been riven by infighting ever since Berlusconi stepped down, and the party’s lawmakers have been targeted by a series of inquiries into fraud and waste of public funds.
Also on Sunday, Monti held closed-door talks with President Giorgio Napolitano ahead of what could be a decisive week for Italy’s political calendar.
Napolitano is expected to address the political situation in a speech on Monday, and Monti is due to hold an end-of-year press conference on Friday.
Monti has said he will hand in his resignation as soon as parliament approves next year’s budget — in a vote that is expected in the coming days.
The government would stay on in a caretaker capacity until the general election, which most observers agree will now be on February 17.
International Cooperation Minister Andrea Riccardi, a close ally of Monti, said the prime minister would “take votes away from the centre-left, a bit from the centre-right but above all from absenteeism — he makes people want to vote again.”
But the results of a poll by the Ispo institute released on Sunday showed that 61 percent of respondents were opposed to Monti being a candidate and only 30 percent were in favour.