Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi bared his heart on primetime television on Sunday, as support for his re-election bid fell away with lawmakers from his own party pledging allegiance to Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti ahead of elections in February.
With his legal troubles coming to a head, Berlusconi invoked “vengeance before God” for his tax fraud conviction earlier this year. His ongoing trial for having sex with an underage prostitute was “a giant operation for defamation,” he said.
The former three-time prime minister also said he had been “tricked” into hosting parties with hordes of young women at a time when he felt “lonely” after separating from his second wife.
Berlusconi was speaking on a chat show on Canale 5, part of his media empire. It came the same day the party he founded, the People of Freedom, held a convention in Rome where its leaders backed Monti.
“Today we are all for Monti to be candidate for prime minister,” Roberto Formigoni, governor of the wealthy northern Lombardi region, said at the event.
Former Italian 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. That has added to the domestic and international pressure on the technocrat prime minister to spell out his intentions.
Recent polls have shown that what would be Berlusconi’s sixth election campaign in two decades would end in defeat at the hands of a resurgent center-left. Political observers have said the aging politician may be looking for a way out. The current favorite is center-left Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, a cigar-chomping ex-communist who while promising to follow Monti’s reforms has also said he would do more for “jobs and equity.”
Berlusconi was forced out in November last year 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.
A verdict is looming in his trial for having allegedly paid for sex with a then 17-year-old Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan-born exotic dancer who attended some of his parties when he was prime minister. He is also accused of abuse of power for allegedly having pressured police to have her released from custody when she was arrested for theft.
Berlusconi, who denies all charges, faces a sentence of several years in prison. However, given the delays in the justice system and sentencing guidelines for over-70s, he is unlikely ever to see the inside of a prison cell even if convicted.
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.