ROME - Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, forced out amid sleaze claims as the economy crashed last year, failed to show at a meeting where he had been tipped to announce a comeback.

Angelo Alfano, new leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom Party, said he had another unspecified engagement, while other sources cited security fears amid the presence of a few Libyan demonstrators at the late Friday gathering.

But the Corriere della Sera daily speculated that the underwhelming effect of an announcement before some 300 elderly supporters especially bussed in and fatigued by a Rome heatwave was the real reason for Berlusconi's no-show.

Even so, Berlusconi's fans seem convinced that their discredited hero will sooner or later - perhaps at a grand meeting after the summer holidays - declare that he will lead his PDL party into parliamentary elections planned for April next year.

The 76-year-old media magnate, one of the richest men in Italy, has gone on a diet and shed several kilos, said one of his favourite journalist, Bruno Vespa.

"For those who know him, it's the sign that he will be travelling around a lot from the autumn and will reappear on television," Vespa wrote Saturday on the website Quotidiano.net.

"And if he returns to television, that means he will return to politics," Vespa said, adding that Berlusconi would consider 18 years of political commitment wasted if he did not try to revive his party's fortunes.

"There is a major wave of support for Berlusconi to put forward his candidacy again," party leader Alfano said Wednesday.

"Many people are asking him to do this, and I am one of them... I think in the end he will decide to come back."

Since handing over to a coalition government headed by Mario Monti to get Italy out of its financial mess, Berlusconi has said several times that he wanted Alfano, 41, his former justice minister, to succeed him.

But press reports say he is beavering away behind the scenes to reshape the party, which suffered a massive setback in May local elections.

The reports say he fancies a name change for the party, probably returning to Forza Italia (Go Italy), as his movement was called when he entered politics in 1994, and is envisaging a joint ticket with a woman.

One woman he does not want is Nicole Minetti, 27, a regional councillor from Lombdardy and Berlusconi's former dental hygienist, who is accused of supplying a host of young females for the parties he held while in office.

The so-called Rubygate scandal, referring to the name of a pole dancer linked to Berlusconi, is just one of the court cases hanging over him, along with allegations of financial and tax fraud.

Opinion polls have showed the PDL could win up to 30 percent with Berlusconi as its head in the 2013 elections, but only 10 percent with Alfano at the helm.

However a new poll published Friday showed Monti's popularity had risen to 49 percent and that a return by Berlusconi to the political fray would make little difference to his party.

Though Monti has pledged to step down at the next elections, Berlusconi's critics say it would be disastrous for Italy if he became prime minister again, destroying the country's credibility with lenders and the markets.