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Italy's Berlusconi calls for broad government or early vote

Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) speaks to reporters after a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at Quirina
Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) speaks to reporters after a meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at Quirina

ROME (Reuters) - Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, buoyed by new opinion polls showing a lead for his center-right coalition, said on Friday Italy must return to the polls quickly unless the center left agrees to govern with him.

Italy has been gridlocked since an inconclusive February election gave no bloc enough votes to govern, forcing outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti to stay on as a caretaker until the impasse can be broken.

"It's crucial to form a strong and stable government immediately," Berlusconi said in a tweet. He added that if the center-left Democratic Party (PD) continues to reject his call for a broad coalition, "we must return to the polls."

The 76-year-old media magnate, who was widely written off after he was forced from power in 2011 by a mounting debt crisis, is once more a key player on Italy's political scene and polls suggest he might well come out on top in any new election.

February's vote produced three main blocs in parliament - the center left headed by PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, Berlusconi's center right and Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

Bersani, who won control of the lower house but fell short of the Senate majority that would allow him to govern, rules out a "grand coalition" with Berlusconi, while Grillo refuses a pact with parties he blames for Italy's social and economic crisis.

A poll published on Friday by the SWG agency gave Berlusconi's center-right alliance 31.4 percent of the vote, up 2.2 points since the election and now 2.1 points ahead of the center left.

Grillo's 5-Star Movement was on 25.4 percent, almost stable since the election despite signs of internal division and widespread media criticism of the former comic's refusal to co-operate with the center left to allow a government to be formed.

Berlusconi is following a two-pronged strategy. While he calls for the center left to be "responsible" by forming a broad coalition with him, he also appears to have already launched a new election campaign.

Last month his followers packed Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome's most famous squares, in a rally at which he promised to "win big" in a new election, and he has scheduled another rally in the southern city of Bari on April 13.

(Reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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