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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 May 2006, 21:40 GMT 22:40 UK
Berlusconi: Out but not down
By David Willey
BBC Rome correspondent

Silvio Berlusconi waving
Goodbye for now but Berlusconi promises to be back
Silvio Berlusconi, who has on previous occasions compared himself to Napoleon and to Jesus Christ, took his leave as prime minister with a characteristic flourish.

"We were the best in the history of the Republic, they will look back on us with regret," he announced triumphantly to his colleagues at his final cabinet meeting before handing his resignation to President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

The billionaire businessman, who jealously maintains his public image with regular exercise, an occasional facelift, a recent hair transplant and the careful application of layers of make-up whenever he appears on TV, has refused to be humbled by his recent narrow election defeat.

In fact, he claims that he has been defrauded of victory because more Italians voted for him than for Romano Prodi, who is expected to form the next Italian government shortly.

"Prodi will not have an easy life as prime minister," Mr Berlusconi told his colleagues gathered in the cabinet room at the Palazzo Chigi, the Roman Palace originally built by the Sienese banking family, who count a pope among their ancestors.

Silvio Berlusconi addresses supporters in April
He shows no sign of wanting to retire from the political fray

He clearly believes that he may shortly be back in command there and has warned that he will maintain a very combative opposition.

He has a point. Mr Prodi will shortly face his first confidence vote in the Senate, the upper house of the Italian parliament, where he has only a wafer-thin majority.

The long drawn-out election of the new Speaker of that house last week gave a foretaste of the "no-holds-barred" tactics that Mr Berlusconi intends to employ in parliament during the coming weeks and months.

Tests of strength

The recent general election which Mr Berlusconi lost is only the first of a series of popular consultations scheduled for this spring and early summer.

The media magnate appears to have given up for the moment in the contest to become the next Italian leader, but there are two other coming tests of strength in which he will do his best to torpedo Mr Prodi's new centre-left coalition, as soon as it is formed.

Silvio Berlusconi sporting a bandana on holiday in 2004

The first popular vote will take place as early as the end of May, when partial local elections are scheduled over much of the country. Mr Berlusconi will be looking to press home his allegations of irregularities in the April general election and to give a chance to his supporters to show their loyalty to him once again.

Then, at the end of June, a national referendum is due to be held over constitutional reforms enacted by Mr Berlusconi earlier this year.

Here again the battle lines are drawn. Mr Berlusconi expects to use the full power of his commercial TV near-monopoly to prevent his opponent from overturning his ambitious plan - phased over the coming years - to slim down the number of MPs and senators, to change the upper house into a regional assembly, to diminish the powers of the head of state, and to ensure that future Italian prime ministers are elected directly by the people.

Political fighter

When he was elected five years ago Mr Berlusconi presented what he called his "contract" with the Italian people to create new jobs, stimulate the economy and provide better welfare.

His actual record, despite the puffery in a glossy election booklet sent to every Italian family shortly before the election, falls short of his promises.

The Italian economy, like that of much of the rest of continental Europe is stagnant, and the forecast for the coming year holds out little prospect of improvement.

Government debt and expenditure remain stubbornly high, and Italy has been repeatedly rapped on the knuckles by Brussels for failing to keep within the parameters of the Euro stability pact.

Mr Berlusconi's foreign policy, strongly supportive of President George W Bush in Iraq, is likely to undergo a swift change of emphasis under Mr Prodi. The withdrawal of Italian peacekeepers from southern Iraq by the end of the year has already been agreed; it is now only a question of timing.

With the knowledge that half the Italian electorate still supports both his domestic and foreign policies, Mr Berlusconi has no intention of bowing out of Italian politics.

He has always been a fighter and as he approaches his 70th year he shows no sign of wanting to retire from the political fray.

Carlo Azeglio Ciampi greets Silvio Berlusconi

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