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ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi failed to appear at a political rally on Friday, dashing expectations that he would use the occasion to announce he would run for his former post in next year's election.
On Thursday, Fabrizio Cicchitto, parliamentary leader of Berlusconi's PDL party, had said that the 75-year-old media billionaire would be the centre-right candidate for premier in the general election due in early 2013.
But reporters and television camera teams gathered at a Rome hotel in the hope of a clear statement from the man himself were disappointed.
"I bring you the greetings from President Berlusconi who was unable to attend because a commitment prevented him coming," PDL party secretary Angelino Alfano told the meeting of a small Catholic group allied to the PDL.
Despite mounting speculation of a possible comeback, Berlusconi has made no public declaration himself and his no-show at Friday's rally maintains the uncertainty over his political future.
An opinion poll by the IPR institute published in the left-leaning La Repubblica pointed to defeat for the centre-right next year, with or without Berlusconi at the helm.
It forecast a centre-left alliance led by the Democratic Party would take 42 percent of the vote, ahead of 30 percent for the centre-right, with the populist 5 Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo taking 20 percent.
Berlusconi, forced from office last year as a financial crisis threatened to slip out of control and leave the Treasury unable to manage its 1.9 trillion euro debt pile, has given several hints that he plans to return to politics.
He still faces trial over allegations, which he denies, of paying for sex with an underaged prostitute.
He has taken an increasingly critical line against the austerity policies of Prime Minister Mario Monti and talked openly about Italy abandoning the euro, adding to the already high level of uncertainty surrounding next year's election.
On Friday, ratings agency Moody's underlined the importance of the vote for financial markets, cutting Italy's sovereign debt rating by two notches and saying that the uncertain political climate was adding to financial risks.
Reporting By Alberto Sisto; Editing by Mark Heinrich