Giulio Andreotti, 87, who dominated Italian political life for half a century, has said that he would be "pleased" to be elected president of the Italian Senate, which holds its first session since the general election on Friday.
Seven times Prime Minister, convicted then subsequently acquitted of Mafia association - though only thanks to the statute of limitations, which states that charges for a given crime must be brought within a certain time period - Mr Andreotti has been an unavoidable presence in Italian politics since he first entered parliament in 1947. He was made Interior Minister in 1954 and first became Prime Minister in 1972.
Despite the serious criminal cases against him, which included ordering the murder of a troublesome journalist (of which he was convicted but subsequently acquitted), Mr Andreotti maintained his poise and characteristic grim sense of humour, and continued to attend the Senate, where he has been one of a handful of "senators for life" since 1991. In October 2004, Italy's highest court cleared him of Mafia crimes but made it clear that it considered him guilty of "concrete collaboration" with the Mafia up until 1980. But now the statesman frequently depicted by cartoonists as the Prince of Darkness is set to move from the shadows, after being persuaded by the president of the Chamber of Deputies to stand for election as the centre-right's candidate to be president of the Senate.
Notionally equivalent to the Speaker in the British Parliament, in Italy the president is far more prestigious and can have a critical impact on the work of the government.
And the importance of the election this time around is intensified by the fact that, while Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition will have a working majority in the Chamber of Deputies, in the Senate it will have at most a majority of two. Unlike in Britain, the two chambers have equal power and all legislation must pass both twice before becoming law.
Senators thus have the power to bring the government to its knees, and by championing the Christian Democrat Mr Andreotti against the candidate of the centre-left, Franco Marini, Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right "House of Liberties" coalition is sending Mr Prodi a warning that it will not hesitate to make his own coalition's political life difficult, and, if possible, very short.
Mr Prodi's coalition won a victory in the general election two weeks ago which has since been confirmed by the Court of Cassation, but it cannot take office until a new head of state is elected to replace Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, whose term expires on 13 May. Mr Ciampi, 85, has said repeatedly that that he does not want a second term. This means that Mr Prodi will not be able to take up the reins of government till the second half of May.
A victory by Mr Andreotti would exacerbate fears that Mr Prodi's victory was, in Mr Berlusconi's words, a pyrrhic one, and that his government may be stillborn.
"If Marini loses the election [as president of the Senate]," said one MP in the Left Democrats, the largest party in Prodi's coalition, "it would greatly increase Prodi's difficulties in giving life to a strong government. Anyone on the centre-left who thinks a slap in the face to Marini would be just a trivial thing is making a big mistake."
Silvio Berlusconi, who will continue as Prime Minister until Mr Prodi is sworn in, has yet to telephone his adversary to congratulate him on his victory and has declared that he has no intention of doing so. But he is sending out conflicting signals about his plans and expectations for the future. At a hotel restaurant in Trieste at the weekend he told fellow diners: "The centre-left won't be able to govern, they are just passers-by. Without our accord in the Senate, not even one provision will pass."
But he also entertained his audience with a medley of songs, including one which he said he had composed himself after the election result in which he describes going to live on a tropical island.
And in another indication of his unsettled frame of mind, on Saturday he was overheard telling holidaymakers near his villa in Sardinia that the centre-left government "is going to last for five years and perhaps longer", adding: "Power unites, it doesn't divide ..."
'Concrete collaboration' with the Mafia
* Giulio Andreotti has never had any embarrassment about working with figures of dubious repute, whether politicians or otherwise. And according to Italy's highest court, this recklessness extended, over the course of many years when he was the most powerful man in the land, to a "concrete collaboration" with the Sicilian Mafia.
The relationship is said to have begun in 1968 when the Mayor of Palermo, Salvatore Lima, won a seat in parliament and became Mr Andreotti's close ally in the Christian Democratic party. Lima was a man of immense power in Sicily, who as far back in 1964 had been forced to admit links to the Mob.
Lima had proved himself the biggest vote- getter in Sicily. He helped to turn the Andreotti faction into a power in the land, and in recompense Mr Andreotti put Lima in the cabinet.
Observers were shocked but not surprised. "Andreotti belongs to a certain Jesuitical, clerical tradition in which you accept that in a fallen world you have to work with the material at hand," an old colleague told the journalist Alexander Stille.
Mr Andreotti's "concrete collaboration" with the Mafia brought about years of great prosperity for the Mob. Only with the collapse of Christian Democrat power in the face of corruption trials in the early 1990s did the relationship unravel.
Lima was assassinated by the Mafia in 1992.
Mr Andreotti denies all involvement with the Mob.Reuse content