The 85-year-old campaigned behind the scenes for weeks to replace outgoing President Sergio Mattarella.
Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi announced in a statement that he would not run for president, removing an obstacle to cross-party negotiations ahead of the vote in parliament starting on January 24.
The nomination of Prime Minister Mario Draghi is considered the most likely outcome, but it is still unclear whether the wide range of parties supporting his coalition will endorse him for fear that his departure could cause an early national election.
Berlusconi said he wanted the former president of the European Central Bank to remain at the helm of government until the natural end of the legislature, in 2023.
In a statement during a virtual meeting on Saturday with fellow right-wing leaders, Berlusconi maintained that he had the figures, but in the spirit of “national responsibility”, he said he had asked those who made his name known to pull it back.
“Today, Italy needs unity,” he said, noting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. “I will continue to serve my country in other ways.”
The right-wing coalition has asked Berlusconi to run for president, but his bid is unlikely to be successful due to difficulties in gaining the broad support traditionally needed among the more than 1,000 lawmakers and regional delegates involved.
Berlusconi is a highly divisive figure in Italy and the center-left camp has already ruled out supporting him.
He was temporarily barred from public office following a conviction for tax fraud in 2013, and is still on trial in the latest of a series of cases for bribing witnesses in a minor prostitution case linked to his infamous “Bunga Bunga” “sex parties more than 10 years ago.
Italy’s president is in a largely ceremonial position, but plays a crucial arbitrary role during political crises and has significant political influence over the seven-year term.
No clear winner
The winner of the secret parliamentary vote requires a two-thirds majority in any of the first three rounds of voting. An absolute majority is sufficient thereafter.
Neither the center-right nor the center-left bloc have enough votes to force a candidate out of their own camp, which means some sort of compromise is needed to prevent a prolonged stalemate.
“We will work with the leaders of the center-right to agree on a name that can reach a broad consensus in parliament,” Berlusconi said in a statement.
Berlusconi’s right-wing allies, Matteo Salvini’s League and the Brothers of Italy, said they appreciated his decision.
Salvini said in a statement that the center-right bloc is united and ready to make several “high-profile” proposals.