By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's four-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Saturday he would stand to lead the country for a fifth time if a snap vote is called after centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani again rejected forming a government with his rival.
The February election left parliament split between three hostile blocs, none of which can govern alone, making an early return to the polls a growing possibility.
But for constitutional reasons a new election cannot be called by President Giorgio Napolitano, and so it will be his successor who will have another chance to find a solution that allows the formation of a government, or else dissolve parliament and call new elections.
Voting to pick a new president starts on Thursday.
Berlusconi's centre right would win a snap vote by a hair, overturning February's result that gave the PD control of the lower house but not the Senate, an ISPO poll published in Saturday's Corriere della Sera newspaper showed.
Speaking to thousands of supporters gathered in a central square in the southern city of Bari, Berlusconi repeated that he was willing to join Bersani to form a right-left "grand coalition" government.
"Or there is an immediate government, strong and stable, or else the Italians should return to the ballot boxes and vote in June," Berlusconi said.
"We are ready for another vote, and I will be present as leader of the People of Liberty (PDL) party and candidate for prime minister," Berlusconi said to a roar from the crowd.
In February's vote, PDL secretary Angelino Alfano was the party's premier candidate, with Berlusconi saying he would be economy minister. But his remarkable comeback during the campaign to nearly defeat the PD has again made him the undisputed leader of his bloc.
Earlier on Saturday, speaking at a small theatre in an impoverished suburb of Rome, Bersani said he was willing to seek a neutral candidate to be the next president because the constitution says he should be a figure of "national unity".
But he rejected forming a government with Berlusconi, saying: "A grand coalition is not the right response to the problems of the country."
Bersani has been under mounting pressure from inside and outside his party to back a government with Berlusconi, who is unpalatable for many PD voters, to end the political stalemate now in its second month.
The PD rally was called as a "protest against poverty" and Bersani repeated his recipe to try to create jobs and loosen the suffocating austerity that has worsened Italy's recession, which already equals the longest in postwar history.
But the political deadlock has put the PD at risk of splitting, and employers' lobbies and labour unions have joined in a call for the formation of a government to make economic reforms.
Berlusconi on Saturday rubbed salt in Bersani's wound, criticising him for being more worried about holding his party together than about the good of the country.
"Forty-seven days have passed and we have no semblance of a government. Is it acceptable that in the middle of an economic crisis we have this total and absurd paralysis?" Berlusconi said.
Comedian Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement held a first round of online voting to select 10 candidates that it will back for president. Another online vote will be held on Monday to narrow the field down to one.
The 5-Star candidates include former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, investigative journalist Milena Gabanelli, prosecutor Gian Carlo Caselli and former European commissioner Emma Bonino.
Prodi and Bonino have been floated as possible new presidents that could appeal also to the PD or PDL, but Berlusconi on Saturday said it would be "best for all of us to move out of Italy" if Prodi is chosen.
Should Bersani and Berlusconi fail to agree on a common candidate, the PD could join forces with the 5-Star or others and elect a president without the support of Berlusconi.
The prolonged stalemate has not caused the kind of market panic feared before the election, but business and labour leaders now insist on the need for a government.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Michael Roddy)