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Berlusconi forms coalition to compete in national elections

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ROME — Italy’s playboy former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, announced a deal on Monday with the right-wing Northern League ahead of next month’s national elections, potentially opening up a tighter contest in a race being closely watched by financial markets.

Battling criminal charges for allegedly having sex with a minor as well as mounting criticism from the Roman Catholic Church, Berlusconi is staging what some here are calling a desperate bid to return his party to power.

Opinion polls have shown Berlusconi — who spooked investors by blasting the tough economic reforms made by interim Prime Minister Mario Monti last year as unjust diktats from Germany — to be in an uphill battle against the front-runners, a center-left coalition headed by Berlusconi’s longtime rivals in the Democratic Party.

“We have a pope,” the 76-year old billionaire — who also recently announced a pending marriage to his 27-year old girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, a former backup dancer for a singer — declared with trademark fanfare after tough rounds of backroom political talks yielded a deal early Monday.

The agreement would see Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party (PDL) support the Northern League’s Roberto Maroni in his bid for governor of the wealthy region of Lombardy. In exchange, the Northern League, which broke with Berlusconi after he was forced from office at the height of Italy’s debt crisis in 2011, would back the PDL in national elections Feb. 24 and 25.

Berlusconi left open the possibly of settling for the role of economy minister instead of prime minister, suggesting that if his coalition won, the top job could go to his anointed successor, Angelino Alfano.

But in the classic style of the man known as Il Cavaliere (Italian for “the knight”), he left himself with substantial wiggle room, saying a final decision would be made only after the elections.

Recent polls suggest the PDL and Northern League together are commanding national support of roughly 28 percent, putting them closer to, though still significantly behind, the center-left coalition headed by the Democrats, who are polling around 36 percent.

A stronger result for Berlusconi could make it even more important for the Democrats, led by the 61-year old former Communist Pier Luigi Bersani, to reach a deal with Monti, whose own recently-formed centrist coalition is running in second place in many polls.

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