MILAN (AP) — He's 81 years old and can't run for office because of a tax fraud conviction, but Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's three-time former premier, is again playing kingmaker in his country's political arena.
After a long period of relative quiet on the political scene, Berlusconi has been spearheading a center-right coalition that hopes to ride momentum from a weekend election victory in Sicily to a return to national power in a parliamentary vote early next year.
Neither his reputation as a womanizer nor his close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin so far have put the slightest crimp in the ex-premier's return to the political stage.
"Berlusconi has real political skills, even at his age," said Roberto D'Alimonte, a leading Italian political analyst who writes for il Sole 24 Ore. "He still has a lot of political resources, money and media, plus 2 million core voters."
A billionaire media mogul, Berlusconi emerged on the political scene in the 1990s, serving a total of three terms as premier after winning elections in 1994, 2001 and 2008. He resigned his last government in 2011 after losing a confidence vote as investors punished Italy for its high public debt.
While lesser politicians likely would have been permanently sidelined by Berlusconi's combination of age, criminal conviction and global infamy following revelations of "bunga bunga" sex parties with aspiring show girls at his Milan villa, the tycoon merely lay low and waited for the right moment to re-emerge.
"There are parties for extremists, paupers, populists and irresponsibles," a trim and tanned Berlusconi said at a September campaign rally where he made his return to active politics. "That is why I am still here."
Berlusconi, who has a history of cosmetic surgery, prepared for the comeback by losing 10 kilograms (22 pounds) over the August holiday through a strict no-carb diet and an exercise regime that included 60 minutes of walking, an hour of swimming and weight training, as revealed by his close friend, TV presenter Bruno Vespa.
The regimen was also meant to allay concerns over his health following the open-heart surgery he underwent more than a year ago.
In recent weeks, Berlusconi has stumped in Sicily for the center-right, campaigned for a pair of autonomy referendums in Lombardy and Veneto and returned to Brussels after a five-year absence for a meeting of European centrists.
The seasoned politician demonstrated his political acumen at the September event in Sicily by putting aside a 40-page prepared speech and delving into animal rights, his latest cause and a passion he shares with his third wife, 32-year-old Francesca Pascale.
Berlusconi rattled off statistics from a survey he commissioned as he reached for a fresh demographic: pet owners. Italians own 8 million dogs and 12 million cats, and 92 percent of those owners consider their pets family members, according to the survey.
"And 72 percent of women, taking advantage of anonymity, responded that they would choose their dogs" over their husbands, Berlusconi said, eliciting laughs.
But even as Berlusconi basks in the triumph of Sunday's regional vote in Sicily, his role as the dominant force in the center-right is being challenged. The coalition that aims to win next year's parliamentary vote includes his Forza Italia party, the anti-migrant, anti-EU Northern League and the right-wing Fratelli d'Italia party.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini has been transforming the party that once backed secession for Italy's wealthy northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy into a national player. The former premier also must contend with Giorgia Meloni at the head of the Fratelli d'Italia.
"Berlusconi will struggle to impose his more moderate line on his populist allies," Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, a political consulting firm based in London, said, noting that the Northern League can be seen as "the driving force in the center-right" in the north.
However, only the Democratic Party's Matteo Renzi, also a former prime minister, has proven a match for Berlusconi's charisma. But the younger politician is faltering under political missteps that started with a failed constitutional referendum that led to his resignation as premier last December.
Renzi's criticism last month of the Bank of Italy's governor Ignazio Visco also proved damaging and has further divided the left. His party finished a distant third in the Sicilian governor vote. With the Democratic Party crumbling, the populist 5-Star Movement could prove to be the center-right's biggest challenge in 2018.
Under an Italian law that bans individuals with criminal convictions from holding public office for six years, Berlusconi is ineligible to run himself before 2019. He is challenging the law at the European Court of Human Rights, which has scheduled a hearing Nov. 22.
"I am confident that I will finally have from Europe the justice that I have been waiting for, but have been denied, for years," he told Milan's daily Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview published Tuesday.
He added that his commitment to Italian voters "who have always given me their trust and affection" would remain unchanged no matter the outcome.
A court victory could strengthen Berlusconi's clout by allowing him to be an active candidate, said Giuseppe Orsina, deputy director of the school of government at Rome's Luiss-Guido Carli University. "But I don't think this is absolutely crucial. Even from the sidelines, Berlusconi can be a major player."