Berlusconi, the sequel?

Prime minister vote favors mogul

Silvio Berlusconi's bid to return to power went from long shot to likely late Monday after plans to solve Italy's protracted political crisis by forming a temporary caretaker government were abandoned and snap elections appeared all but inevitable.

Pollsters said that the favorite to win any election held in the near term in Italy probably would be Berlusconi, the controversial billionaire media magnate whose empire includes broadcast giant Mediaset and film producer and distributor Medusa.

The polling firm Opinioni said Monday that Berlusconi's approval levels continued to hover at about 50% — downright lofty compared with 13% for Romano Prodi, who resigned as prime minister last month, and 35% for Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, Berlusconi's most likely opponent if elections are called.

"These things can change very fast but people know what they're getting with Berlusconi, and they evidently feel comfortable with the notion of him in charge," Maria Rossi, Opinioni's co-director, said in an interview. "Under the current circumstances, Berlusconi has to be a strong favorite."

If he wins, it would be the fourth time that Berlusconi would wear the prime minister's sash.

The media reported that President Giorgio Napolitano will call for new elections today. Speculation is that they would take place in mid-April.

The long lag before the elections could be bad news for Berlusconi, because it would give time for the Italian electorate to get to know Veltroni, who is popular in his native Rome but not as well known as Berlusconi elsewhere in the country.

But Berlusconi's control of media outlets — Mediaset owns three of Italy's seven national networks, plus a major newsmagazine and one of the country's most important daily newspapers — will give him power to shape public opinion.

Prodi, a former European Commission president, narrowly defeated Berlusconi in 2006. But Berlusconi, a Milan native, did not fade away after that defeat; he became a thorn in Prodi's side, limiting his power to govern until his government finally crumbled Jan. 24.

Napolitano tried to appoint a temporary caretaker government to push through a series of electoral reforms to help stabilize the beleaguered Italian political system that has produced 61 governments in 62 years. But Berlusconi, sensing a chance to return to power, dug his heels in and demanded immediate elections.

On Monday night, Franco Marini, the man Napolitano appointed to form a temporary government, gave up on the job, forcing the new elections.

The abandoned electoral reform plan means that whoever wins the next vote will inherit a set of electoral rules passed by Berlusconi in 2005, when he was prime minister. Those rules give great power to small parties in a ruling coalition, an aspect that eventually resulted in Prodi's downfall.