MILAN (AP) -- Former Premier Silvio Berlusconi announced a deal Monday with the Northern League — his fractious coalition partner in three governments — to jointly run in Italy's election next month, a move that could give fresh impetus to the center-right and extend the Berlusconi era.
While leaving open the question of whether he will run himself, Berlusconi underlined his ambitions for the deal reached overnight at his villa near Milan by saying: "Habemus Papum," — the Latin phrase for "We have a pope."
A return to power for the 76-year-old Berlusconi, a man convicted just months ago of tax fraud and likely facing two criminal verdicts in the coming weeks, may seem incredible to observers abroad. Opinion polls at home, however, have seen Berlusconi's conservative party gaining since he pulled its support for Premier Mario Monti's technical government last month.
The Feb. 24-25 national election is shaping up into a race with Monti in the center, Berlusconi to the right and Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani on the left, along with a movement founded by comic-cum-political agitator Beppe Grillo. The conservative coalition has been polling second to Bersani's center-left forces.
"If Berlusconi were to win, then he would try to grab the premiership," said James Walston, a political science professor at the American University in Rome. "I think it is very, very unlikely he is going to win. He is not trying to win, he is trying to spoil."
While the Northern League has ruled in coalition with Berlusconi three times, the relationship has been rocky at best — with the League being behind the downfall of previous Berlusconi governments. Berlusconi's last government ended in November 2011 under pressure from financial markets, which expressed a lack of confidence in his ability to reform Italy's economy.
Italy's extraordinary high public debt is the second highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the 17-nation eurozone after Greece. Monti, an economist, came in to shore up Italy's finances and launch economic reforms.
His spending cuts and tax increases have brought down borrowing costs but they have also have pushed Italy into recession. Monti resigned last month after Berlusconi withdrew his support and is running a caretaker government until the national vote.
Berlusconi said it was still not clear whom the center-right coalition would back to run as premier, saying one possible candidate was Angelino Alfano, the leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom party. The Northern League, however, was pushing for former Economics Minister Giulio Tremonti.
Berlusconi did not acknowledge that some Northern League members were reluctant to back Berlusconi himself for the post.
"I am the leader of the coalition and I will decide with the other parties involved, in the case of victory, who to propose ... for premier," the billionaire media mogul said.
Monti, meanwhile, has radically changed his tone in recent days, dropping his neutral technocratic stance as enters political mode in earnest. He has criticized Berlusconi for demonstrating "a certain volatility in judgment" and urged the center-left leader to jettison extremists who he said will make Italy's economic reform path more difficult.
Berlusconi has for weeks been toying with a run for a fourth term. Already sounding like a candidate, he has already come out strongly against Monti's unpopular decision to impose a property tax on first homes and has been voicing opposition to any moves by Air France to increase its stake in Alitalia. His earlier abolition of property taxes and moves to keep Alitalia in Italian hands helped boost him to his last election victory.
On Monday, he voiced support for civil unions for gays and lesbians, after Monti this weekend said such a move should be up to lawmakers and not a government.
Gay rights groups expressed skepticism, noting Berlusconi's "years of doubtful jokes about homosexuals, including explicit homophobia" and his clear opposition to civil unions before a gathering of Christian reformers. Still, the advocate group Arcigay invited him to "write his program in black and white" and get his partners to sign it.
Berlusconi also could see verdicts in two criminal cases before the election, including the sensational sex scandal in which he is accused of paying an underage Moroccan teen for sex and then trying to cover it up. That trial has been slowed by the failure of the Moroccan teen, Karima el-Mahroug, to show to testify. She has been vacationing in Mexico instead.
The court has fined her €500 ($650) and ordered her to appear on Jan. 14. It is unclear how the trial will proceed if she fails to show again, but the court can decide finish the trial without her testimony.