ROME - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday dismissed suggestions that he should step down for the good of Italy's image, saying he was the only person qualified to lead the country now and by far the best in Italian history.
Berlusconi, speaking at his first news conference since Italy's top court lifted his immunity from prosecution and opened the way for a resumption of corruption trials against him, also said he was the man most persecuted by judges in the entire history of the world.
Berlusconi was asked by an American reporter about calls by critics that he step down because his personal and legal problems damage Italy's image in the world.
The reality is completely the opposite, he said, remaining unusually calm in his response. In my opinion, and not only mine, I am the best prime minister we can find today.
Smaller opposition parties and a number of editorials in foreign publications, including Friday's Financial Times, have called on the 73-year-old Berlusconi to resign.
In a major blow for the premier, the Constitutional Court ruled on Wednesday that a law granting him immunity from prosecution while he is in office violates the constitution. His lawyer said two trials against him could resume in two to three months, but he remained confident of acquittal.
Berlusconi's comments about being the only man for Italy's current political season also appeared to be a message to those within his center-right bloc who are said to be seeking a successor in Gianfranco Fini, lower house speaker and the second most important center-right leader.
At the news conference, Berlusconi repeated his assertion that he is the best prime minister in Italian history, but this time went one further when discussing his legal woes.
I am without a doubt the person who has been most persecuted by judges of all times, in the entire history of the world and the history of man, he said.
DAM AGAINST THE LEFT
Berlusconi said he was a dam against the left in Italy, again accused the country's president and the Constitutional Court of being politically biased, and said judges who rule against him are trying to subvert the will of the electorate.
The immunity law, one of Berlusconi's first acts after winning last year's election, halted all the cases against him, including one in which he is accused of bribing British lawyer David Mills to give false testimony to protect his businesses.
Mills' own, separate appeals trial resumed on Friday and his lawyers said they would call Berlusconi as a witness. Mills was convicted at his first trial earlier this year.
Another trial, accusing Berlusconi of tax fraud and false accounting in the purchase of TV rights by his Mediaset broadcaster, was also frozen. Berlusconi denies any wrongdoing.
Some commentators warned that tension stemming from the court ruling could destabilize Italy's political landscape and spill over into the economy.
They say the verdict is bound to weaken Berlusconi and make tough economic policy decisions less likely as the third largest economy in the euro zone struggles to recover from its deepest recession since World War Two.
But Berlusconi, who said he would go on television to prove that the trials against him are false, a farce, was adamant that his ability to govern would not be affected.
I don't see any problem for the country, for the government or for me besides the fact that I will have to take some time out of my work for the country (to attend trials).
He seemed to go out of his way to stay calm in his lengthy answer at the news conference, during which he accused the foreign media of reading Italy through the lens of the country's leftist newspapers.
By contrast, in spontaneous comments on the day of the court decision, an angry Berlusconi clenched his fist and raised his voice. He has also has been hit by a spate of scandals surrounding his private life, including allegations that a businessman paid prostitutes to sleep with him. His wife announced in May she wanted a divorce because of his womanizing.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)