Berlusconi steps aside, but not out

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ROME (AP) – Silvio Berlusconi has had a rocky five years as Italian premier: His gaffes, his support for war in Iraq and his legal woes have made the conservative billionaire a polarizing, love-him-or-hate-him personality at home and abroad.

Berlusconi finally stepped down Tuesday to make way for his center-left rival Romano Prodi, after refusing for weeks to concede defeat in parliamentary elections. But despite leaving behind a stagnant economy and a ballooning budget deficit, it may be too soon to count Berlusconi out.

“I am not giving up,” the master of political showmanship said over the weekend, promising a tough opposition to Prodi’s government.

Leading Italian analyst Massimo Franco, a political commentator for the Corriere della Sera daily, said Berlusconi remained strong, his Forza Italia party the country’s largest.

“He still has an admirable ability to interpret the country,” Franco said in a telephone interview.

By sheer force of his personality, Berlusconi raised Italy’s profile on the world stage, for better or worse.

He befriended President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his off-the-cuff remarks occasionally embarrassed the country, such as when he compared a German lawmaker to a Nazi concentration camp guard.

He ceaselessly promoted Italy’s cultural, social and economic wealth, but also boasted of his own riches and famously admitted to having cosmetic surgery around his eyes as well as hair-replacement surgery.

“They will miss me,” the 69-year-old Berlusconi was quoted as telling his ministers shortly before handing in his resignation to the president Tuesday.

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