By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Shrugging off old age, ill-health, sex scandals and a criminal conviction, Silvio Berlusconi is in the thick of yet another Italian election campaign as the four-times prime minister battles for a central role after the vote.
Berlusconi, who will turn 86 four days after the Sept. 25 ballot, looks sure to be on the winning side, even if he is now the junior partner in the rightist alliance he used to dominate.
Opinion polls give his conservative Forza Italia party around 8% of the vote. That compares with 12% for Matteo Salvini's League and 24% for Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy, its two hard-right allies.
Together, the bloc should easily prevail over its divided leftist and centrist opponents, the polls suggest.
Meloni looks set to carry most clout in a future coalition, but she will probably still need Berlusconi's support to get it off the ground, allowing him to punch above his weight in terms of policy decisions and government posts.
Berlusconi, who first ruled Italy in 1994, was widely written off after his last government was sunk 11 years ago by a debt crisis and scandal over his "bunga bunga" sex parties at his villa outside Milan.
He was convicted of tax fraud in 2013, had major heart surgery in 2016, became badly ill with COVID in 2020 and has been in and out of hospital over the last year with various ailments. He often slurs his words and is prone to confusion, yet retirement seems the last thing on the billionaire media magnate's mind.
"He wants to stay alive in a political sense, with things to do, things to offer, he wants to 'be there' for as long as possible," said Giovanni Orsina, a politics professor at Rome's Luiss university who has closely followed Berlusconi's career.
Berlusconi unsuccessfully bid to become head of state in January and could be in the running for Senate speaker in the new parliament. Even without a formal role, he will be active behind the scenes to try to influence government policy.
He has cultivated an image as the more moderate leader in the rightist bloc, but his election pledges are as generous as ever, including minimum pensions of at least 1,000 euros ($991) per month and a single income tax rate of 23%.
Most analysts say these are unsustainable for Italy's fragile public finances.
He also contributed to the downfall of outgoing premier Mario Draghi, joining forces with the League and the 5-Star Movement, another ruling party, in refusing to back the former European Central Bank chief in a parliamentary confidence vote.
Berlusconi has strengthened his ties with League leader Salvini in an attempt to curb Meloni's dominance over the rightist bloc, but polls suggest she has continued to advance at her allies' expense.
"Forza Italia is slipping, I have it on 6-7%," pollster Antonio Noto said on Friday, the last day before a blackout on publishing new opinion polls kicked in ahead of the vote.
Forza Italia's support is now concentrated in Italy's under-developed south among low or middle-earners with strong personal allegiance to the leader rather than the party, said Noto.
"Berlusconi's voters are people who have stuck with him over the years, people who still believe his promises, he doesn't get any new voters," he added.
Berlusconi has largely limited his media appearances ahead of the election to pre-recorded speeches and unchallenging interviews with the three national television channels he owns, yet these precautions are still not enough to avoid slip-ups.
In recent campaigning he has said he was the last Italian premier who actually ran for the job "in 208" (instead of 2008), and has promised to "abolish" the tax wedge, which would require completely scrapping income tax and welfare contributions.
This month he joined a rush of Italian politicians taking to TikTok to court younger voters, kicking off his short video with a typically cheery "hi guys, here I am", and admitting he was "a little envious" that most of his viewers would be under 30.
He later said the video had "beaten all previous world records" in terms of the number of viewers.
He has also used his huge financial resources to plaster railway and underground stations with youthful-looking photos of himself alongside the slogan "now more than ever, pick a side".
Despite Berlusconi's inevitable decline in power and popularity, politics professor Orsina said his achievements over almost 30 years still made him "a giant" compared with his rivals.
"For better or worse, in future history books about Europe Berlusconi will get four or five pages. Most of the others running in this election will hardly get a mention," he said.
($1 = 1.0090 euros)
(Additional reporting by Francesco Zecchini in Milan, editing by Ed Osmond)