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.
He is also on trial in Milan for allegedly having sex with an underage prostitute and using his office when premier to try to cover it up, charges he has denied. The young woman has also denied having sex with the then-premier. Berlusconi, whose convictions in previous trials on charges linked to his media empire's dealings have either been overturned or thrown out when statute of limitations expired, claims he is the victim of prosecutors he contends sympathize with the left.
With financial markets rattled over the prospect that Monti might see his tenure in the premiership end before May if early elections are called, the premier insisted that the political crisis was "manageable." Monti contended his government, with its austerity agenda of spending cuts, higher taxes and pension reform, spared Italy — and with it, other nations in the eurozone — from succumbing to financial disaster.
Standard & Poor's rating agency on Friday indicated it could lower Italy's rating if the recession endures well into 2013, and it cited "uncertainty" the next Italian government can stay the tough course of austerity Monti's nonpartisan government managed to move through Parliament, thanks to the wide support.
Berlusconi declared "the campaign is already on" and insisted he's running "out of a sense of responsibility" toward recession-plagued Italy. For months, he had been coy about whether he would run again. But on Saturday he claimed that a search for a new leader, like the one he was when he burst into politics in the early 1990s, failed, and so "out of desperation" for lack of alternative, he was jumping into the race.
Italian media have reported that Berlusconi was particularly irked by Monti's Cabinet approval, earlier in the week, of a measure that would ban from running for office anyone sentenced to more than two years in prison after convictions are definitely upheld in cases of terrorism, organized crime and offenses in public office, including corruption.
Berlusconi's tax fraud conviction in October carries a four-year sentence, but the case could be dismissed if the statute of limitations runs out before all appeals are exhausted.
Critics have contended that Berlusconi expended much of his efforts as premier to push through legislation tailor-made to help him in his legal woes, and any new term in the premier's office could offer a similar opportunity.
Since his last election bid, in 2008, Berlusconi has lost the key support of its biggest coalition partner, the Northern League, which refused to support Monti's government. But the League, whose founder, Umberto Bossi, has been tarnished by scandal, hasn't ruled out forging a new election alliance with Berlusconi.