ROME Silvio Berlusconi offered on Wednesday to stand back and make way for Mario Monti as Italy's next leader if the outgoing technocrat premier agreed to run as the candidate for a centre-right coalition.
At a book launch in Rome, Berlusconi issued a series of rambling and contradictory statements, although he confirmed he was currently still standing as the centre-right candidate in the election.
Monti announced on Saturday that he planned to resign, shortly after Berlusconi had said he would be the candidate of his People of Freedom (PDL) party in an election expected in February.
Monti has not decided whether he will stand for prime minister despite being strongly wooed by centrist parties, European leaders and investors who want him to continue his austerity policies. They are deeply concerned about a return by the scandal-plagued Berlusconi.
Monti replaced Berlusconi a year ago as recession-hit Italy teetered on the brink of a Greek-style debt crisis, and has since restored its international respect.
Since the weekend, Berlusconi has repeatedly attacked Monti's policies, saying they have brought Italy to the edge of an abyss, and bitterly criticised Germany.
On Wednesday, he said Monti's policies had been dictated by the left and again accused Germany of profiting from the euro zone crisis.
"It is undeniable that we are worse off now. Every statistic is worse than a year ago. Italians are desperate," he said.
The suggestion that Italy was on the edge of a precipice before he handed over to Monti was a "colossal lie", he added.
"NO PERSONAL AMBITIONS"
But in another of his now routine switches of position, he said he would support Monti as the candidate for a "moderate" coalition opposed to the centre-left, which is comfortably ahead in opinion polls.
"I proposed to Monti to be the candidate as leader for the moderate centre and he said he didn't want to. If his position changes, I would have no problem to step back ... I have no personal ambitions," Berlusconi said.
Berlusconi's rivals poured scorn on his remarks.
"Berlusconi is evidently in a confused state if he suggests making yet another about-turn if Monti runs," said centrist leader Pier Ferdinando Casini, who was the target of many of Berlusconi's criticisms on Wednesday.
Berlusconi implictly threatened to bring down the regional governments in the northern Veneto and Piedmont regions, where the PDL rules together with the separatist Northern League, if the latter refused to back his bid to become prime minister for a fifth time.
League leader Roberto Maroni was quoted in an interview on Wednesday as saying Berlusconi would have to withdraw as a candidate if he wanted to seal an election alliance with the League.
Such a pact is considered vital to the centre-right's attempt to prevent the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) forming a stable government after the election.
"Dear Silvio, we can't agree to it if you're in the field. The League cannot support you if you keep up your candidacy for prime minister," Maroni was quoted as saying in the daily La Repubblica.
If the rebuff is confirmed, it would deliver a potentially fatal blow to Berlusconi's hopes of keeping control of the upper house, the Senate, and securing a spoiler role in the next parliament.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Gavin Jones,; Editing by Alison Williams)