ROME (AP) — Billionaire media baron Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned in disgrace with Italy tottering through the European debt crisis, announced Saturday he was making a comeback and running for a fourth term as premier.
Berlusconi, 76, reluctantly stepped down last year after pressure from international financial markets. He was later convicted of tax fraud and is on trial in Milan for alleged sexual misconduct and abuse of power when he was premier.
An unelected government of technocrats, led by widely respected economist Mario Monti, was appointed to replace him. Opinion polls have seen the popularity of Berlusconi's Freedom People Party plunge to far below that of Italy's other large political force, the center-left Democratic Party.
But Berlusconi professed confidence he can achieve victory.
"I'm running to win," Berlusconi told reporters outside the training facilities of his soccer team AC Milan.
One of Monti's biggest backers in Parliament, centrist leader Pier Ferdinando Casini, bemoaned Berlusconi's bid to return to office.
"It has been a year that Italians are seriously sacrificing to try to avoid Greece's abyss, and, today, there's the reemergence of Berlusconi, who wants to bring us back five years," Casini said on state TV.
Since Monti took office, the retirement age for Italy's generous pensions has been raised, sales taxes have been hiked and a property tax on primary residences — abolished by Berlusconi to fulfill one of his own campaign promises — has been reinstated.
But while opinion polls of prospective voters find slumping support for Berlusconi's party, to lower than 15 percent, the media mogul might be betting on public impatience with those sacrifices.
No date has been set for elections, linked to the end of Parliament's term in late April. But Berlusconi's decision earlier in the week to withdraw the support of his party — Parliament's largest — for Monti's anti-crisis government increased the likelihood that Italy's president would dissolve the legislature weeks early and elections ahead of schedule.
"It seems to me that March 10 has been indicated" as a possible date for early elections, "and that seems a date that's fine with me," Berlusconi said.
Monti headed back from a conference in France for a meeting Saturday evening at the presidential palace to take the pulse of political tensions. President Giorgio Napolitano has made clear he wants Parliament to at least pass a vital budget law later this month and avoid a "precipitous" demise amid mounting political uncertainty.
When pressure from international financial markets forced Berlusconi to reluctantly step down in November 2011 at the height of sovereign debt worries, many pundits dismissed any prospects for a comeback bid for the combative businessman-turned-politician, who has led Italy's conservatives for nearly 20 years.
Since Berlusconi resigned 18 months short of the end of his third stint in the premiership, he has been convicted of tax fraud. He is appealing, and in Italy, convictions don't become definitive until after two levels of appeals are exhausted.
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