( AP ) - Former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi hit the campaign trail Friday without waiting to find out if the country faces early elections as a result of Premier Romano Prodi's resignation, which followed a humiliating defeat in a Senate vote.
"I realized I have opened the electoral campaign of the People's Freedom" party, the media mogul said in Naples after delivering a speech that heavily criticized Prodi's 20-month-long government, which collapsed on Thursday night.
Even before defectors in Prodi's coalition sank the government, Berlusconi had been lobbying for early elections. With the popularity of Prodi's government sinking in opinion polls over the last months, Berlusconi, already twice premier who lost to Prodi in 2006, is eager for a third term.
A right-wing ally of Berlusconi, Gianfranco Fini, widely considered to have his own eye on the premiership, has also come out for early elections.
The Italian head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, must now decide whether to call elections some three years ahead of schedule. Or, if he finds enough consensus across party lines, he can ask a respected figure above the political fray to try to form a government that will try to reform Italy's electoral system.
The current, proportional voting system gives small parties considerable weight in frequently fragile coalitions. That's a big reason why Prodi struggled to keep together forces ranging from pro-Vatican Catholic politicians and other centrists to Communists and Greens.
Prodi told reporters he would now concentrate on "being a grandfather," ruling out any new role soon for himself in politics.
It will be some days before Napolitano announces his decision, since his meetings with the leaders of the biggest parties, Berlusconi, and Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, who heads the center-left Democratic Party, were set for Tuesday.
Napolitano met on Friday with leaders of some smaller parties.
"We asked to go to early elections, the more straightforward path," said Francesco Storace, a right-wing opposition leader.
But Napolitano has said he prefers that the next parliamentary elections be held after lawmakers change the electoral law.
Berlusconi's forces changed the electoral law in 2005, giving disproportionate weight to small parties in Parliament, a move that helped placate his own sometimes troublesome coalition partners. The changes largely undid a reform a decade earlier that had provided some measure of political stability to a country known for "revolving door" governments.
Prodi's government was Italy's 61st since the end of World War II.
Berlusconi, invited to speak to supporters of a small political party of Italians abroad, promised he would try to abolish the property tax should his forces be elected.
The 71-year-old Berlusconi, who has had heart problems and become ill at rallies in the past, spoke vigorously at the Naples appearance.
Berlusconi, who has been investigated in several corruption probes, also pledged to push for a law that would punish, with a five-year prison sentence, anyone who uses wiretapped conversations for uses other than investigations of terrorism and organized crime.
Cases against him have ended in acquittals or been thrown out when statutes of limitation expired. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
His critics have contended he used his tenure as premier to push for laws to help him in his legal woes, but Berlusconi has insisted he was helping the entire country.
Some news reports have suggested that Berlusconi's longtime top aide, Gianni Letta, might get the nod to try to form an interim government. Letta is largely respected by the left.
Meanwhile Prodi is staying on in a caretaker role. His office said Friday evening that his visit Feb. 4 to Washington, where he was expected to go to the White House, has been canceled. Also scrapped were talks in Egypt on Jan. 29.