ROME -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced Wednesday that he would not stand for reelection to his old job and pledged to help launch younger faces in the party he created.
Berlusconi, the controversial 76-year-old billionaire who was forced to step down in November as Italy faced financial disaster, called for primary elections within the People of Liberty Party, or PDL, to choose the candidate for premier in April elections.
Two figures immediately threw their hats into the ring: party secretary Angelino Alfano and Daniela Santanche, an outspoken member of Parliament who has vigorously defended Berlusconi, long plagued by sex scandals and judicial proceedings.
Berlusconi's announcement came after months of contradictory declarations about the intentions of the former leader who dominated Italian public life for two decades. It was the latest in a series of events that signal a long-awaited generational change in Italian politics.
In a long message to Italian news agencies, Berlusconi said that “for love of Italy one can do crazy things and wise things.... Now I want to take a step back with the same love that moved me to act then,” referring to his 1994 surprise election and first of three turns as prime minister.
“I will support the young people who now must play and make goals,” said Berlusconi, who is owner of the AC Milan major league soccer squad.
The announcement came amid polls of waning support for Berlusconi within his party and for the PDL itself, which has been wracked in recent months by scandals regarding corruption and illicit spending of public funds.
It is also another sign of the changes the Italian political scene has been undergoing after Berlusconi was replaced by economist and former European Commissioner Mario Monti, who, with a government of technocrats, has been enacting a series of unpopular measures and reforms.
Those measures have succeeded in calming international leaders and markets speculation, but have not stopped Italy’s recession. They have been supported reluctantly by the PDL, the Democratic Party and a small centrist group.
Primaries are a novelty for the PDL, where Berlusconi commanded. But the rival center-left Democratic Party is suffering its own throes of reorganization through primaries, with younger candidates challenging the older generation of leaders.
And Beppe Grillo, a comic-turned-firebrand populist who has ruthlessly skewered nearly every political figure in Italy, has gathered enough disaffected voters to his Five Star Movement to make an outcome in spring elections unpredictable.
Although the major parties have stepped up criticism of Monti, some have hoped that he will serve another term. He has said he will not run, but some analysts have hypothesized that if elections don’t produce a clear winner, in certain circumstances he could be tapped to form a government.
Analysts agreed that it was unlikely that Berlusconi would simply sit back and give advice in the party that was his creation. It was not clear whether he would seek a seat in Parliament.
[Updated at 2:09 p.m., Oct. 24: Berlusconi is currently on trial in Milan on charges of paying for sex with a minor and abusing power.]
-- Sarah Delaney
Photo: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a ceremony in Milan on May 11. Credit: Luca Bruno / Associated Press