Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi sowed confusion on Wednesday saying he could abandon his re-election bid if Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti decided to run as leader of a center-right coalition, a stunning twist to his two-decade political career.
“If Monti runs for leader, I would take a step back,” Berlusconi said, a day after he criticized his successor for failing to revive the Italian economy and said he was “too German-centric.”
“I think it would be a great benefit for the country if professor Monti becomes the next prime minister as leader of a moderate movement,” he said.
Berlusconi said he could also be a coordinator of a broad center-right coalition without being its candidate or choose to go for some “well-deserved rest.”
There is growing speculation in Italian media that Monti, a former high-flying European commissioner, could run in the elections, but the 69-year-old economist has so far declined to comment.
To the general confusion of journalists at the book presentation where he was speaking, billionaire Berlusconi added: “At the moment I am a candidate for Palazzo Chigi” — the prime minister’s residence.
The three-time prime minister then said the current secretary of his People of Freedom (PDL) party, Angelino Alfano, could be a possible candidate instead.
Berlusconi’s comments surprised political observers, since he and Monti have been clashing at a distance this week.
Riccardo Barenghi, a columnist for La Stampa daily, dismissed Berlusconi’s offer as “a joke.”
“It’s clear that the candidate from the center-right is still Silvio Berlusconi. He’s back in full form,” Barenghi said.
Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for Monti’s unelected, technocratic government in parliament last week, prompting the prime minister to announce that he will resign as soon as next year’s budget is approved.
Berlusconi officially launched his campaign for a new term as premier on Saturday, saying: “I am running to win.”
Monti replaced Berlusconi in November last year after the tycoon was forced out by a parliamentary revolt, a wave of panic on the financial markets and a series of damaging sex scandals.
Monti is widely credited with dragging Italy back from the brink of bankruptcy by keeping a lid on public finances, launching long-delayed economic reforms and restoring Italy’s credibility abroad.
However, unemployment has risen to record highs and austerity has hit the middle class hard and the economy has remained mired in recession.
Monti said on Wednesday that Berlusconi had resigned “leaving a lot left to be done,” adding: “That is why whoever wins the elections will have to try and continue reforms.”
Reacting to criticism of his candidacy from European leaders, Berlusconi on Wednesday said: “I think there have been misunderstandings and a lot of malice from these people.”
He said that a “hegemonic Germany” gave the European Central Bank only the power to fight inflation when the single currency was formed.
“That’s why the euro is not a real currency,” he said.
Germany reacted to earlier criticism from Berlusconi on Tuesday, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle saying it was unacceptable for Germany to be used as a target in a “populist election campaign.”
Westerwelle also said that if Italy’s new government goes back on Monti’s reforms “it would be a dangerous development for Europe.”
A convicted tax fraudster who is on trial for abuse of power and having sex with an underage prostitute, Berlusconi is running for election for the sixth time since 1994, when he started out with a party called Forza Italia (Go Italy).