MILAN – Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi announced Wednesday that he won't run for a fourth term in spring elections and said his center-right movement should hold a primary to choose its candidate.
"I won't run for premier," Berlusconi said in a statement posted on his movement's website, "but I will remain next to younger players who need to play and score goals."
Berlusconi, who stepped down in November after failing to come up with effective economic reforms to shield Italy from the debt crisis, has until now been coy about his intentions. But the soccer metaphor also indicates that the 76-year-old media mogul, and owner of the soccer club AC Milan, isn't ready to give up politics entirely.
"I still have good muscles, a bit of a head, and my role is to give advice, offer memory, stories and judgments without being intrusive," Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi recommended that his People of Freedom movement hold primaries on Dec. 16 to decide a candidate for premier. Berlusconi last year had named Angelino Alfano as his successor to head the political movement, but Alfano recently has been relegated to supporter role as Berlusconi publicly mulled his options.
Wednesday's announcement was met by a flood of political reaction, including those who doubt this will be the last word.
"For now, that is just one of the many Berlusconi announcements to which he has accustomed Italians," said Italo Bocchio, a former Berlusconi ally whose party defected from the movement in a bitter split. "We'll see in a short time if it is something concrete, or only a propagandistic discovery."
Maurizio Sacconi, a former minister in Berlusconi's Cabinet, called the move "courageous and generous," one that will allow the "moderates" on the right to unite behind a leader. Sacconi said he would throw his support to Alfano.
Matteo Renzi, the Florence mayor who plans to challenge Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani in center-left primaries, welcomed Berlusconi's push for a primary elections to decide his successor on the center-right. "I am very happy for Italian democracy," Renzi wrote on his Facebook page. "It is a significant step forward."
Berlusconi came to power in 1994, and he dominated Italy's political scene until he was forced to resign last November with the country in financial shambles and a personal legacy tarnished by sex and corruption scandals. He currently is on trial in Milan on charges of having paid an under-age Moroccan teen for sex and trying to cover it up.
Berlusconi was replaced by Premier Mario Monti, who heads a government of technocrats charged with reforming Italy's economy to stave of the continent's sovereign debt crisis. The government's mandate expires in the spring. Monti has ruled out running for the post, but has signaled a willingness to stay on for another term in case no political party commands a majority and politicians ask him to stay on.