Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was cracking jokes in Sun Valley this week after telling American business leaders and media bosses of the bright future that lay ahead in the land known as the Bel Paese.

Bright may be an exaggeration as Monti is the first to recognise the country is reeling from recession, ballooning unemployment and the impact of higher taxes and charges.

And there was nothing much to laugh about when Moody’s sliced a couple of notches off Italy’s credit rating while Silvio Berlusconi re-emerged from the shadows to declare himself a candidate for prime minister next year.

Well, he never really went away and the People of Freedom Party (PdL) he founded has been among several parties at times giving only qualified support to the technocrat Monti government as Berlusconi sought to reposition himself politically .

But the 75-year-old scandal-ridden, gaffe-prone leader has now raised the stakes and gave the clearest sign yet that he would seek re-election in 2013.

“I am back in action to save the PdL which would collapse without me,” Berlusconi said in an interview and later on his personal website Go Silvio.It. “We took 38% of the vote in the elections of 2008 but if we went down to 8% at the next elections, what sense would my 18 years in politics have? I wanted to make the announcement later, possibly at the start of the autumn, but here it is difficult to keep anything secret.”

If you thought the three-time premier had retired to his sumptuous villa on the Costa Smeralda for a little “bunga bunga” before returning to defend charges of paying for s-x with underage prostitute known as Ruby in a Milan court, it may be time to think again.

You may have even thought Berlusconi’s career was finished since he left the presidential palace in disgrace in November and euphoric Italians celebrated in the streets after the premier’s 17-year career had apparently come to an end. But the man he anointed as his replacement, Angelino Alfano, performed poorly in local elections held in May and polls commissioned by Berlusconi have reportedly shown that his return could push the party’s vote back up from 10% to 28%.

An energetic Berlusconi says he is getting fit and plans to lose at least eight kilograms in the next few months in readiness for what lies ahead. In his spare time he has been studying voting trends and the surprising success of maverick comedian Beppe Grillo, who captured the imagination of the disaffected without a well-established political party that did well in the May elections.

The question is can Berlusconi really recover from the s-x scandals, the corruption trials and his government’s notorious inaction on the economy and have any hope of capturing the growing number of disaffected Italian voters? Anything is possible as the country’s debt grows, jobs disappear and bond spreads continue their roller coaster ride in the financial markets.

“There’s a huge groundswell of support for him becoming a candidate,” said Alfano, a Sicilian who heads Berlusconi’s party. “Many people are asking him to do it, including me.”

His main rival Pierluigi Bersani, head of the centre-left Democratic party, called the prospect of a Berlusconi candidacy “chilling” and his former ally, Gianfranco Fini, who created a breakaway faction in 2010, said this was no time for “miraculous promises, unfulfilled commitments and large conflicts of interest”.

But Daniela Santanche, a loyal ally and MP from Berlusconi’s party said: “We have no one better than Berlusconi. For months I’ve been saying that he is our best candidate.”

James Walston, professor in international relations at the American University in Rome, says Berlusconi’s return is significant but not surprising.

“He has a psychological need to be the centre of attention. He has always been a performer and is clearly not going to give up now,” Walston said. “Power is probably the strongest drug available and once tasted it is very difficult to kick the habit. It would be wonderful to savour the taste of victory in the company of world leaders who have so obviously shown their distaste for him.”

Berlusconi could still face an uphill battle to return to power, since an independent poll by Opinioni claims his party’s support is actually low as 18% and the Northern League, the main coalition partner that bolstered him.when he was last in office is now in disarray after its own internal political scandals.

Peter Fray

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