Berlusconi Succession Battle Begins
The contest to fill Silvio Berlusconi's shoes and lead Italy's centre right into elections next year has opened with about a dozen candidates stepping forward, including Benito Mussolini's grand-daughter.
Mr Berlusconi, former three-time prime minister and founder of the People of Liberty party, announced last month that he would not be a candidate.
However, he also sowed confusion over the search for his successor by expressing his lack of enthusiasm for the party's decision to hold a primary contest, fearing it would be a public flop.
One opinion poll carried out by Datamonitor this month found only 16 out of 2,000 respondents intended to cast a vote in the party's primaries, due to start next month. The precise timetable and format have yet to be finalised.
Despite a widely held suspicion that Mr Berlusconi will eventually launch another comeback – despite or because of his trials on charges of tax fraud and paying for a juvenile prostitute – at least 11 would-be successors announced their candidacy by Monday's deadline.
Angelino Alfano, a former justice minister who orchestrated various legislative attempts to keep Mr Berlusconi out of the courts while in office, is widely seen as the leading contender. An SWG survey on Monday gave him a comfortable lead ahead of Alessandra Mussolini – a former neo-fascist and actress – and Gianpiero Samori, a wealthy political neophyte leading a movement for "moderate Italians in revolution".
However Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, saw Giorgia Meloni, a former sports minister, as the main rival to Mr Alfano.
The leadership debate is likely to revolve around Mr Berlusconi's 18-year legacy and whether the party should continue to associate itself with Mario Monti's technocrat government, which it has supported in parliament over the past year.
Ms Meloni, formerly of the post-fascist National Alliance party, hit out on Monday at what she called Mr Monti's "failed" government, echoing Mr Berlusconi's recent attacks.
Mr Alfano has taken a more moderate approach, indicating he might be ready for an alliance with centrist groups toeing a pro-Monti line.
The People of Liberty has steadily declined in opinion polls since Mr Berlusconi's previous centre-right coalition government started disintegrating amid corruption investigations and his own sex scandals, resulting in his resignation a year ago.
Recent polls suggest the party, the largest in parliament, is supported by only about 15 per cent of voters and would come third if a general election were held now.