The 58-year-old television mogul turned politician went into a crucial meeting with President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro last night with at least some members of his Forza Italia movement apparently prepared to countenance an interim administration, paving theway for new polls in six months, or a year.
Names favoured for the premiership include the outgoing treasury minister, Lamberto Dini, a respected conservative close in thinking to Mr Berlusconi, and Giuliano Urbani, Forza Italia's intellectual figurehead and the outgoing civil service minister.
Mr Berlusconi himself, however, gave no indication he had softened his line, and some of his political rivals were yesterday predicting an explosive encounter with the head of state. All could depend on the maddeningly unpredictable arithmetic of Italy'sfractious political parties and alliances.
Several external factors could influence the outcome, chief among them a decision pending this week from the Constitutional Court on the admissibility of 16 referendum proposals. If the court gives its blessing to any of them, parliamentary elections would automatically be pushed back to June. Under the Italian constitution, a referendum must be held as soon as it is called, and no further poll is permitted for another 60 days.
Two of the proposals concern the electoral system. If passed, they would end proportional representation and introduce a British-style first-past-the-post system in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.
Three other measures on media ownership could also be crucial to Mr Berlusconi's future. If passed, they could force him to sell at least one of his three main television networks and perhaps loosen his hold on the newspaper and magazine market.
Even without a referendum, any interim administration would have to address the question of Mr Berlusconi's access to the media. The centre-left opposition accuses him of having effectively stolen last March's general election by using his stations to broadcast propaganda on his behalf. Mr Berlusconi has argued, somewhat unconvincingly, that the media is if anything balanced against him and says the whole idea of an interim administration is unconstitutional.
Opinion polls show Mr Berlusconi still enjoys considerable public support, but the outcome of the crisis will hinge less on his personal charisma than on hard parliamentary arithmetic. The Italian political class has been in turmoil ever since Mr Berlusconi stepped down on 22 December following the defection of his volatile coalition partners, the Northern League.
The League has now split into pro-Berlusconi and anti-Berlusconi camps. This weekend the outgoing Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni, a Berlusconi loyalist, hinted it might be time to wrest the party leadership away from its founder, Umberto Bossi. "We have to pull away the rudder from the hands of the man who is steering us onto the rocks,", he said.
Meanwhile the centrist Popular Party has also splintered. The party leader, Rocco Buttiglione, has indicated he wants to join forces with the main left-wing party, the former communist PDS, as well as the League to form a centre-left alternative to Mr Berlusconi's Freedom Alliance.
The proposal has met stiff resistance, however, from more cautious party members with uncomfortable memories of Christian Democrat-Communist cooperation in the 1970s known as the" historic compromise".The stage could be set for a new coalition.
of the Popular Party, plus a few smaller parties such as Mr Pannella's Reformists. It is up to Mr Berlusconi to give the signal that he is willing to go along with it.Reuse content