Tajani agrees to be Berlusconi’s PM choice ahead of Sunday’s vote

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (R) meets former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (L) as he arrives for the European ceremony in honor of the late former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 1 July 2017. [Mathieu Cugnot/EPA/EFE]

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said yesterday (1 March) he would stand as candidate for prime minister for former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, or “Go Italy!” party, in the 4 March vote.

Berlusconi, 81, has served as Italy’s prime minister four times, but is barred from holding public office until 2019 because of a 2013 tax fraud conviction.

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He is an 80-year-old convicted criminal whose last government ended with Italy on the brink of bankruptcy – and he may well be kingmaker at the next election within a year.

Berlusconi had announced on Tuesday that Tajani, a Forza Italia co-founder in 1994, was his preferred premier candidate in the parliamentary election, but said Tajani had not yet accepted the offer.

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Silvio Berlusconi cannot be Italy’s prime minister due to a tax fraud conviction but he will most likely play the role of kingmaker. The name of European Parliament President Antonio Tajani remains among those who could win his favour.

Yesterday, Tajani responded on Twitter, thanking Berlusconi for “his gesture of great respect toward me. I told him that I was willing to serve Italy.”

Berlusconi welcomed Tajani’s announcement shortly after an appearance on a talk show on one of the media magnate’s own TV channels.

“I know it’s a shame to take Antonio Tajani away from Europe, but it’s in the best interest of Italy,” Berlusconi said.

Tajani, 64, has been one of Berlusconi’s most loyal lieutenants, staying by his side when the veteran leader, engulfed by sex scandals, was forced to resign as prime minister in 2011 at the height of a sovereign debt crisis.

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With a new Silvio Berlusconi sex scandal involving prostitutes and an underage girl of Moroccan origin dominating Italian political debate, people in Brussels are lamenting the damage to Italy's reputation. Meanwhile, the leader of the MEPs from Berlusconi's party is distancing himself from the prime minister's behaviour.

Friday is the last day of campaigning allowed before the Sunday vote. Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance was seen winning the most seats before a poll blackout came into force on 16 February, but still falling short of a governing majority.

Berlusconi’s coalition partners include the anti-migrant League and nationalist Brothers of Italy. They have agreed that if the bloc wins an absolute majority on Sunday, the party which takes the most votes can pick the next premier.

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Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his rightist allies agreed on Thursday (18 January) to a joint manifesto ahead of a 4 March national election, committing themselves to cutting taxes and rolling back pension reform.

Polls had showed Forza Italia maintaining a steady lead over the League. Ultimately, it is President Sergio Mattarella who makes the choice.

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Italy will vote on March 4 in an election expected to produce a hung parliament, instability and possible market turbulence in the eurozone’s third largest economy.

Tajani, an affable and canny networker with a fondness for luxury watches, took over the European Parliament presidency last year after more than 20 years in EU politics.

He was elected to the European Parliament in 1994 and has spent much of his political career in Brussels, becoming president of the EU assembly in January, 2017 when Martin Schulz left the job to return to national German politics.

He served as EU transport commissioner in 2008-10 and then as industry commissioner in 2010-14.

His pro-European credentials means he will not be welcomed with open arms by either of his coalition partners, which are both euroskeptical.

A former journalist with Italy’s Rai television and Il Giornale newspaper, he speaks French, English and Spanish.

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