By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said he may not stand for re-election in 2013 but could play a behind-the-scenes role as a kind of father figure to the center right.
In remarks to a group of foreign journalists in Rome, the 74-year-old premier also said he briefly considered resigning over the crisis in Libya because of the close relations he had with Muammar Gaddafi.
Berlusconi said he would see out his current term but might not run again when it expires. He also said he would not seek to stand as president of the republic.
Italy's richest media entrepreneur as well as its dominant political leader said he could imagine acting as a patron or father figure for the ruling PDL party without a direct executive role.
A final decision would depend on opinion polls, he said.
He indicated Justice Minister Angelino Alfano was a potential successor and put forward the name of his trusted chief of staff, Gianni Letta, as a possible future head of state to succeed Giorgio Napolitano.
The dinner with Berlusconi on Tuesday was originally organized as an off-the-record event but his remarks were leaked to Italian news agencies and the story made the front pages of the main newspapers.
The prime minister's spokesman, Paulo Bonaiuti, played down the comments, telling Italian news agency ANSA that they were hypothetical and did not reflect any concrete plan.
Berlusconi appeared in buoyant form but said he had considered resigning when the United Nations Security Council opened the way for a western-led coalition to begin air strikes against pro-Gaddafi forces because of his close relationship with the Libyan leader in the past.
Berlusconi has been fighting a series of trials over tax fraud, bribery and sex allegations and has stepped up an increasingly bitter war of words with Italian magistrates, whom he accuses of trying to subvert democracy.
He has made similar remarks about his possible succession in the past but the fact that he was speaking to foreign journalists triggered a lively reaction in the Italian press.
Newspapers carried extensive accounts of the dinner while at the same time pointing out that little of what Berlusconi said was new.
The particular structure of the PDL, a party founded around Berlusconi some three years ago which inherited the mantle of his old Forza Italia party, also suggested that finding a new party leader may be less straightforward than suggested.
"He wants people to say, 'Prime Minister, don't do it, run again..." the daily La Stampa quoted Denis Verdini, a close Berlusconi associate and senior figure in the PDL, as saying.
Newspapers also pointed to likely problems with the PDL's coalition partners in the Northern League, which is close to Economy Minister Giulio Tremonti, often seen as a potential successor to Berlusconi.
Some felt that the League would have difficulty accepting Alfano, a Sicilian, as head of a center-right government and said further maneuvering was likely.
"There are those who say the League could put forward a candidate of its own in order to arrive through mediation at a friendly name like Giulio Tremonti," the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore said.
On Wednesday, the lower house of parliament approved a measure that would shorten one of Berlusconi's trials by eight months, effectively killing the case in which he is charged with bribing his British lawyer David Mills.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)