MILAN, Lombardy: File photo shows former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addressing the media, as he leaves the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, after he tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalied since September 3. - AFP

ROME: Billionaire media mogul, Italian prime minister, cruise ship crooner and convicted criminal-after a colourful career, could Silvio Berlusconi, 85, be soon adding head of state to his CV? Just weeks before secret parliamentary elections next month to choose Italy's new president, no clear candidate has emerged for a role crucial to keeping the country's fractious parties in line.

There is intense speculation Prime Minister Mario Draghi might take the job, but in the meantime Berlusconi-despite recent poor health, including a bad bout of coronavirus last year-is on manoeuvres. "Berlusconi will try (to get elected), and could succeed," Gianfranco Pasquino, political science lecturer at Bologna's Johns Hopkins University, told AFP.

Italy's president has a firefighting rather than a ceremonial role. The incumbent, Sergio Mattarella-who is bowing out after a seven-year term-was instrumental in bringing in Draghi at the head of a national unity government last February after the previous coalition collapsed. Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief, has refused to say publicly if he is interested in the presidency. He currently has his hands full managing a vast 200 billion euro ($225 billion) post-pandemic recovery fund from the European Union and implementing reforms Brussels expects in exchange.

President Draghi?

Many-including Berlusconi-have argued the 74-year-old should stay until the next general election in 2023 to push through changes considered vital to debt-laden Italy's economic recovery. Others believe he could do this as president. Lorenzo Codogno, former head economist at the Italian treasury, says Draghi would "exert considerable influence... as a guarantor versus the rest of the EU on Italy's reforms and investments".

In that case, a senior minister would serve as prime minister temporarily before a new one could be approved by parliament. That could spark party squabbling and risk early elections, however, in which the far-right Brothers of Italy and League parties are expected to do well.

Berlusconi, who first burst onto the political scene in 1994, winning over millions of Italians with the help of his vast television empire, has neither confirmed nor denied he will run. Several other names circulating include Justice Minister Marta Cartabia, who if successful would be Italy's first woman head of state, former lower house speaker Pierferdinando Casini, and European Economy Commissioner and ex-PM Paolo Gentiloni.

There are no official candidates. Lawmakers and representatives from each of Italy's 20 regions can vote for anyone in the secret ballot, provided their choice is over 50 years old. A two-thirds majority is needed to secure victory at any of the first three rounds, after which a simple majority is enough. "The centre-right will likely vote united for Berlusconi in the first ballot. It will be a sort of lifetime achievement award," Codogno said. However, he believes there is "no chance" he could drum up enough votes to secure a majority.

Skilled statesman, sex fests

Pasquino said the media magnate could "get the votes by promising places in the next legislature", pointing out that Berlusconi was convicted in 2015 of buying the vote of a senator, although he appealed and the case expired before a final resolution. He "still has a lot of supporters in Italy", Pasquino said. But it would be a "gigantic conflict of interest... to have the owner of three television channels and two newspapers as president". The tycoon, who did a year of community service for tax fraud in 2014, also has "a very complicated past" which would work against him, Pasquino said.

Berlusconi is currently embroiled in two trials over allegations he paid witnesses to lie about his "Bunga Bunga" parties, which were described by girls present as sex fests. Yet the leader of the centre-right Forza Italia party has been reinventing himself as a sensible moderate, a skilled statesman who can rein in an unruly far right.

He is even making overtures to the once anti-establishment Five Stars Movement, the biggest party in parliament, which he had described in 2018 as being a group so unskilled he wouldn't even hire them to clean his lavatories. Franco Pavoncello, political science professor at the John Cabot University in Rome, told AFP that the likelihood Berlusconi be elected was "remote". "Given his age, and given his history, I think that people internationally would be doing some head scratching," he said. - AFP