ROME: Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday ended weeks of speculation and announced he would run again for Italy's prime minister, the post he was forced out of a year ago.
The billionaire politician has called a meeting of his PDL party for Sunday and has also opened talks with former coalition allies the Northern League to try to agree on backing a single candidate.
"I am running to win," the leader of the right-wing populist People of Freedom (PDL) party told journalists in Milanello, near the northern city of Milan.
"When I did sport, when I worked and studied, I never entered into a competition to be well-placed but always to win," the 76-year-old said.
A general election is expected to be held in March or April but the precise date has not been set, nor is there any agreement on reforming an election law widely seen as unsatisfactory.
Berlusconi's announcement confirmed comments by leading members of his party and strong hints that he himself had dropped over the past few days.
In October, he had said that he would not run again for the premiership. On Wednesday evening however, the media tycoon said he had been assailed with requests to return to the field as soon as possible.
This will be his sixth bid to become head of government. He has been prime minister three times over a political career spanning two decades.
A parliamentary revolt forced him from office in November last year as he was fighting a series of scandals that had damaged his reputation and, said critics, the country's standing. The financial markets had reacted so badly that Italy was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
-- Economy "worse than a year ago" --
Mario Monti took over as prime minister at the head of an unelected government of technocrats. He set about introducing a policy of tax rises and austerity measures to get the economy under control.
On Thursday, PDL lawmakers abstained from confidence votes in the government to protest Monti's policies, but stopped short of bringing down the executive they have supported until now.
Berlusconi noted Saturday that his party had backed Monti for over a year, but added that it had "always claimed that an austerity policy causes damage to the economy. . . . All the statistics are worse than a year ago".
Amid the Berlusconi announcement Monti commented that he was confident Italy's next government would not destroy his efforts to revive the debt-wracked eurozone country.
"I am convinced that whatever government succeeds me, the wisdom of the men and women in Italian politics will prevail," Monti said on the sidelines of an economic conference in Cannes, France, on Saturday.
"I am sure there will not be an attempt to destroy what we have been able to do to secure Italy's public finances," he said, adding that there was still an "enormous amount to do for growth" in the economy.
But renewed political tension in Italy has once again spooked the financial markets and Pier Luigi Bersani, the newly-nominated leader of the centre-left Democratic Party accused Berlusconi of "incoherence".
"It's clear that you have not reflected on past mistakes and that for you the Monti government has not been a transition but a parenthesis that opens and closes and everything is like before," he told PDL lawmakers in parliament.
"You are being irresponsible!" he said.
Responding on Saturday however, Berlusconi dismissed the criticism.
"Bersani has already started his election campaign and, so far as I am concerned, we have acted in a very responsible manner."
Bersani was voted in as the leader of the Democratic Party only last weekend. Recent opinion polls put him comfortably ahead in the run-up to the general election.
Monti's government is in any case due to end its term of office with the polls, but the PDL's change of tack has raised the possibility that it might not last that long.
President Giorgio Napolitano was due to meet Monti later Saturday. Napolitano has sought to reassure the public, describing recent developments as "pre-election tensions".
But it has been enough to shake the markets: the yields between benchmark Italian and German 10-year sovereign bonds at one point on Friday widened to 330 points, from around 300 points on Monday.