Elections may return Berlusconi to power

Favored for premier in snap vote

ROME -- Silvio Berlusconi's plans 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 would probably be Berlusconi, the controversial billionaire media magnate.

The polling firm Opinioni said Monday that Berlusconi's approval levels continued to hover around 50% -- not particularly high, but downright lofty compared to 13% for Romano Prodi, who resigned as prime minister last month, and about 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 the 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 will be the fourth time Berlusconi drapes himself with the prime minister's sash. His media empire includes broadcast giant Mediaset and film producer and distributor Medusa.

The media reported that President Giorgio Napolitano will call for new elections on Tuesday. Speculation is that they will 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 far less known than Berlusconi elsewhere in the country.

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

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 produced 61 governments in 62 years. But Berlusconi, sensing a chance to return to power, dug his heels in and demanded immediate elections.

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.

It is not clear if Berlusconi would have better luck than Prodi in keeping minor members of his coalition in line. But pundits recall that Berlusconi's first government, in 1994, fell because of the defection of a junior member of his coalition.