ROME (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi's daughter Marina should lead his center-right party in European parliamentary elections after he was banned from public office, the companion of the 77-year-old media billionaire said in an interview on Friday.
"It's obvious that without him the center-right is stumbling. That's why I hope his daughter Marina takes up the challenge," Francesca Pascale told the daily La Repubblica.
"I hope, humbly, even egotistically, that Marina Berlusconi will really think of this incredible challenge, even though, as a woman, I realize what a sacrifice it would represent."
Italy's highest appeals court this week confirmed a two-year ban on holding public office imposed on Berlusconi after he was convicted of masterminding a serious tax fraud scheme at his Mediaset television empire.
Pascale, 28, is widely considered to have a strong influence over Berlusconi but there has so far been no clear indication from any of Berlusconi's children that they will enter politics.
Marina Berlusconi, 47, a senior executive at Fininvest, Berlusconi's financial holding company, has long been seen as a potential political heir although she has always resisted pressure to take over her father's party.
However speculation has grown that she or one of the former prime minister's other children Pier Silvio, 44, or Barbara, 29, could take the reins to ensure the Berlusconi name remains on the ticket.
Pier Silvio, deputy chairman of Mediaset, was quoted by several Italian newspapers on Friday ruling out a political career. "Politics is not about succession but experience and competence. It's something you have to earn," he was quoted as saying by the La Stampa daily.
Berlusconi's Forza Italia party has been weakened by a split in the center-right which saw a breakaway group defect last year to support the government of former Prime Minister Enrico Letta. That group, headed by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, a former Berlusconi protege, now supports the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
According to an opinion poll by the SWG institute on Friday, a broad coalition of center-right parties holds a very slight advantage over the center-left but Forza Italia officials fear that without Berlusconi's vote-winning charisma support for the party could crumble.
Forza Italia currently enjoys around 22 percent support compared with 31.6 percent for Renzi's center-left Democratic Party (PD) and 20.4 percent for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo.
As well as the ban on public office, Berlusconi, who was stripped of his seat in the Senate last year, also faces a year under house arrest or in community service over the tax fraud conviction, with a court due to rule on the sentence on April 10.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)