By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Four times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has never been afraid to take a gamble during the 17 years in which he has dominated Italian politics and his decision to run for office again at the age of 76 seems like a final roll of the dice.
Berlusconi confirmed the long-expected news almost casually on Saturday, telling reporters at a training field of his AC Milan soccer club that he had reluctantly decided to run. In an entry on his Facebook page, he said he had tried in vain to find a worthy successor.
"It's not that we haven't looked. We have, and how! But there isn't one," he wrote.
The popularity of his People of Freedom (PDL) party is at an all-time low of around 15 percent and his international credibility is still in tatters a year after he was driven from office by his inability to tackle a mounting debt crisis.
Berlusconi's advisers urged him not to return, yet after a year of political, business and legal setbacks the scandal-plagued media tycoon probably felt he had nothing to lose.
He was sentenced in October to four years in prison for tax fraud, although a long appeals process will keep him out of jail and may overturn the ruling, and risks another sentence in an ongoing trial for having sex with an under-aged prostitute.
The share price of his Mediaset broadcasting company has lost around 40 percent since he left office, deprived of his political protection.
Even physically, Berlusconi seems a shadow of his former self. He has stayed in the background for most of the last year and, after several face lifts and hair transplants, often appears puffy and is finally starting to look his age.
Yet for all this, the aged gun-slinger should not be completely written off.
He still enjoys a hard-core of support among millions of Italians, and if there is one thing Berlusconi is good at it is fighting elections.
He has won three out of five since he first shook up Italian politics in 1994 and has always performed better than expected, unlike the centre-left which is famous for polling below forecasts at national ballots.
Another victory will almost certainly be beyond him but he may just garner enough support to deprive the centre-left of a clear majority, giving him a say in the make-up of whatever government can be formed after the election expected in March.
He is now likely to run on a platform that seeks to tap discontent towards the austerity policies of technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti whom he has supported in parliament for the last year.
"I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral without end, it's not possible to go on like this," he said in a statement on Wednesday.
"Today Italy is on the edge of an abyss: the economy is exhausted, a million more are unemployed, purchasing power has collapsed, tax pressure is rising to intolerable levels."
The market reaction to his announcement was a measure of how he is mistrusted by investors, with Italian shares turning negative and its bond yields immediately rising.
Berlusconi doubtless knows his international reputation is irredeemable, but he cares much more about resurrecting his appeal to the self-employed, small businessmen and relatively uneducated masses who have always backed him in the past.
The centre-left Democratic Party's (PD) commanding lead in opinion polls, with more than 30 percent of backing, has been built up in the absence of any centre-right leadership and boosted by its much publicized primary to elect a leader.
The result of that ballot was another factor that convinced Berlusconi to come back.
By electing the dour, 61 year-old former communist Pier Luigi Bersani over the young, telegenic mayor of Florence Matteo Renzi, the PD gave Berlusconi the chance to play the anti-communist card that has served him well in the past.
A showdown between Berlusconi and Bersani, with a combined age of 137, may be an unappealing prospect for a country in desperate need of renewal, but it is one which Berlusconi believes at least gives him a chance.
(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Stephen Powell)
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