But other observers nevertheless viewed the announcement as a likely final chapter of his premiership. It came after political support for the 75-year-old media tycoon — who led Italy with a style that was part Rupert Murdoch, part Hugh Hefner — crumbled, with friends and foes alike demanding his departure.
In a twist of fate, his political undoing was coming not from the lurid list of allegations against him, including corruption and paying for sex with a minor, but instead from the debt crisis.
On Wednesday, Berlusconi told the La Stampa newspaper that he will not run again for office and instead back his former justice minister, Angelino Alfano, as his party’s candidate for prime minister.
Investors have been rapidly losing faith in deeply indebted Italy, the world’s eighth-largest economy. They fear a catastrophic default here that could send shock waves through global markets. Berlusconi himself was widely seen as a big part of the credibility problem, with his divisive leadership endangering political consensus on austerity measures and economic reforms demanded by European leaders to restore market confidence.
In making his offer, the prime minister, who has led Italy off and on for the better part of two decades, conceded that Parliament had become “paralyzed” by his bid to hold on to office. By promising to resign upon approval of those measures, he sought to clear the way for their passage.
But late Tuesday, Berlusconi’s opponents said they may try to press for a speedier ouster for the prime minister. Opposition leaders were calling for President Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s ceremonial head of state, to back plans to install a new unity government run by a neutral political figure. Berlusconi, set to remain at very least a potential kingmaker in Italian politics, said he opposed the idea, instead backing a plan for new elections after his resignation — a race in which the prime minister could theoretically run again.
Berlusconi’s offer to resign, if carried out, would make him the highest-profile figure to fall in Europe’s two-year-old debt crisis, joining a club that includes leaders in Portugal, Ireland and, most recently, Greece. His pending exit raised fresh doubts about who would lead Italy through difficult times in the weeks and months ahead and whether its divided political class could unite behind a plan to win back investor faith.