updated 9/14/2006 5:56:10 AM ET 2006-09-14T09:56:10

Once best known for his brash conservatism, Italy’s ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi is wrapping up a summer that put him in the news more for his exploits as a party animal — and raised doubts over his political future.

The media billionaire entertained guests at his lavish villa in Sardinia with extravagant festivities that included the eruption of a model volcano so realistic that neighbors called the fire department, according to Italian media reports.

He was spotted at VIP-only restaurants and hip night clubs on the posh Emerald Coast. On one occasion, Berlusconi grabbed a microphone and started singing; on another, he went behind the bar and served cocktails.

The extravaganza included a trip to Morocco for his wife’s birthday. According to reports in the Italian press, the conservative leader disguised himself as a local dancer, and performed in front of his wife with his face covered, finishing with the surprise gift of a diamond necklace.

“It’s the first time off I’ve had in a decade,” he has been quoted as saying.

Now, heading back to politics, Berlusconi faces questions over his future as leader of Italy’s conservative opposition coalition.

The media mogul stepped into politics in 1994 and shot to a surprise win of the premiership that year. While his first government lasted only a few months, he stayed in politics and won the election in 2001. He lost to Romano Prodi’s center-left bloc in April.

Change of leadership?
Berlusconi’s summer has even some supporters saying his behavior did not suit an opposition leader who now seeks to represent half the country. The April election, the closest in Italian history, showed a nation almost equally split between the two camps.

“Such carelessness in a man who should represent half of the Italian people and has the ambition to go back to running the country is surprising,” said Antonio Socci, a conservative journalist and writer.

Berlusconi himself fueled speculation when he was quoted over the summer as saying that politics had made him “sick.” Then, last week, he skipped a highly anticipated public debate with a center-left leader.

Some of his allies have openly advocated a change of leadership for the conservative coalition, saying the billionaire, who turns 70 this month, should make way for a successor.

“I refuse the idea that the center-right lives and dies with Berlusconi,” said centrist leader Pier Ferdinando Casini, a former parliament speaker.

Berlusconi: 'I'm condemned to stay on'
The next vote is in 2011, barring early elections. Casini has emerged as an early favorite to take over the leadership of the coalition.

But Berlusconi may not be quite ready to step down.

He was his old combative self at a political rally last weekend, attacking Prodi and pledging “inflexible opposition” to government measures.

His personal charisma and immense wealth make him a natural leader of the bloc. His Forza Italia party has more lawmakers in parliament than all the other coalition parties combined.

Berlusconi puts it simply: He says there’s no candidate able to replace him, and that he has found such warmth and support this summer that he can’t give up.

“I’m condemned to stay on,” he said.

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