ROME -- Former premier Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday bowed out of Italy's presidential election set for next week, claiming he had the votes to win but the country could ill-afford political divisions during the pandemic.
Berlusconi also announced that he is opposing, along with his allies in a center-right bloc, any bid for the presidency by Premier Mario Draghi. Draghi, the former head of Europe's central bank, is now leading a pandemic-unity government with wide political support.
Together, Berlusconi, anti-migrant League leader Matteo Salvini and nationalist Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni could command some 400 of the 1,009 grand electors who are set to start casting written ballots for Italy's next president on Monday.
The electors from the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Senate and special regional representatives are tasked with choosing a figure who could unite the country.
Berlusconi, 85, who founded the center-right Forza Italia party three decades ago and served as premier three times, long has been a lightning rod for protests. His past includes a tax fraud conviction and a slew of sex scandals linked to ‘’bunga bunga parties,'' while his business empire that includes three private TV stations raised conflict-of-interest concerns.
He spent weeks sounding out his own conservative allies as well as lawmakers from centrist forces to see if he had sufficient support to add Italy’s highest office to his political resume.
The prospect of Berlusconi becoming president already prompted a protest earlier this month in Rome, and another had been set for Monday, when voting begins.
In dropping his presidential bid, Berlusconi said he had confirmed he would have had enough support to be elected to the seven-year term of president. He said he was “honored and moved” but didn't want to be the cause of “polemics or lacerations” in a nation still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
With his characteristic lack of modesty, Berlusconi added that the presidency “represents the unity of the nation, of the country that I love and to whose service I placed myself for 30 years, with all my energies, my abilities, my competency.”
He noted he was one of the biggest backers last year of Draghi's appointment to head a pandemic-unity coalition government of nearly all of Italy's main parties, from right to left. The coalition emerged in 2021 after the pandemic economically ravaged Italy and confidence ebbed in the government of then-Premier Giuseppe Conte, a populist leader.
“In this spirit, I decided to take another step on the path of national responsibility” by asking all those who had pledged support for his presidential bid not to choose him. Instead, he and his fellow center-right leaders will work to “come to agreement on a name able to reap a vast consensus in Parliament.”
Italy's recovery from the pandemic, “must go forward,” Berlusconi said. “That's why I consider it necessary that the Draghi government complete its work until the end of the legislature to implement” some 200 billion euros ($230 billion) in European Union pandemic recovery funds, he said. The current Parliament's term runs until spring 2023.
Draghi, who is held in high esteem by EU leaders, is largely viewed as the guarantor that the funds will be properly spent and reforms that are required for the assistance will be enacted.
He also is considered a strong contender for the presidency, but for months has coyly sidestepped journalists’ questions on whether he wants the job. However, Draghi made clear his interest by saying he offers himself to the service of his country.
Berlusconi taking himself out of contention brought reactions of relief, including from former premier Conte, whose 5-Star Movement had been branded by Berlusconi as a danger to the nation.
“We had said it clearly — the candidacy of Berlusconi was unacceptable,'' Conte tweeted. ”With his withdrawal we can take a step forward and begin a serious comparison among political forces to offer to the country a figure of high profile, authoritative, widely shared."
Despite Berlusconi's claim that he had secured the needed votes, League leader Salvini recently had sounded unconvinced that the media mogul was a shoe-in for the presidency.
A two-thirds majority is required in the first three rounds, making it unlikely a winner could emerge early on, given no one political bloc accounts for such a big margin. The fourth round requires a simple majority.
Past presidential elections have gone for days before yielding a victor.
The term of the current president, Sergio Mattarella, term expires on Feb. 3.