By Danilo Masoni
MILAN (Reuters) - Although he has vowed to fight on, Silvio Berlusconi's conviction for tax fraud has fuelled speculation that his eldest daughter Marina, head of his $6.6 billion business empire, could take his place as leader of the center-right in Italy.
Loyalists in his People of Freedom (PDL) party insist that the 76-year old Berlusconi remains firmly in charge and will continue his 20-year leadership of the center-right.
But the media mogul's failure to overturn his conviction last week means he faces a year under house arrest or on community service, which would stretch even his formidable campaigning skills.
He is also likely to be ejected from the Senate in the autumn and be unable to stand as an electoral candidate.
This has boosted the idea that Marina, who turns 47 on Saturday, could become at least the figurehead for the PDL, despite her stated reluctance to enter politics.
Under this scenario, Berlusconi would continue to exercise major influence as the party's founding father, but his daughter would play the more public and campaigning role. Such speculation is encouraged by the fact that the PDL exists only because of Berlusconi and is totally dependent on his wealth and leadership.
"I'd rather have Berlusconi stay on for another round. That said, I am absolutely fine with Marina," Daniela Santanche, one of Berlusconi's staunchest supporters, told a TV talk show.
A front-page article at the weekend in the family's newspaper, il Giornale, read: "Every day they ask her to enter politics. She says no. Perhaps it's because she knows how to choose the right moment."
MOST POWERFUL WOMEN
Listed among the world's most powerful women by U.S. business magazine Forbes, Marina Berlusconi sits at the helm of Fininvest, a holding company that controls broadcaster Mediaset, publishing house Mondadori and soccer club AC Milan. It also has a big stake in asset manager Mediolanum.
She is described by people who work with her as a tough and demanding boss; Fedele Confalonieri, a life-time friend of her father and chairman of Mediaset, once likened her tough business drive to a "pneumatic drill".
However, some senior party figures, including chamber of deputies floor leader Renato Brunetta, are said to oppose the idea of a dynasty in Italian politics.
Four-times Prime Minister Berlusconi catapulted his daughter into corporate life in her early twenties.
"Silvio put her down to work when she was barely more than a child," Vittorio Giovanelli, former director of Berlusconi's Retequattro TV network, wrote in his 2003 book "The tribes of TV", saying her father started bringing her to business meetings in 1985. "She listened and took notes for hours, she would never stop."
A mother of two married to a former La Scala ballet dancer, Marina became Fininvest deputy chairwoman in 1996, and was promoted to the top in 2005. During her tenure, the family's most important companies Mediaset and Mondadori have run into hard times.
Both are struggling to keep on top of the technological changes threatening the media industry, compounding the damage done by recession, which has weakened the advertising market.
Mediaset was forced into a cost-cutting drive after reporting its first annual net loss for 2012, and Mondadori launched a surprise management shake-up in February.
Despite repeatedly distancing herself from the idea, Marina's name has cropped up regularly as a potential leader since her father was unceremoniously bundled from power in November 2011, as Italy faced a possible Greek-style debt crisis.
"I never even thought of entering politics, it's not my role," Marina Berlusconi said in a rare interview in 2011. Just over a month before her father's conviction, Fininvest said talk of her stepping in her father's shoes was "groundless".
Pollsters say that while she has no experience in politics, she would be well received by her father's supporters, and could exploit her image as a successful businesswoman, just as he did when he joined the political fray in 1994.
But her father's extraordinary political skills and powers of communication would be a tough act to follow.
"In theory the majority of the electoral base of the PDL would be favourable to Marina getting into politics. But it remains to be seen whether she is capable of connecting with people like her father is," Renato Mannheimer of the ISPO polling institute told Reuters.
(Editing by Barry Moody and Will Waterman)