Monti says he is open to leading next government

After keeping Italians, and the rest of Europe, in suspense for weeks, caretaker Premier Mario Monti on Sunday ruled out campaigning in February elections, but said he would consider leading the next government if politicians who share his focus on reform request it.

The decision positions him to take the helm again without having to get into the political nitty-gritty of an election - preserving his image as someone above the fray who can make tough decisions on imposing austerity. His previous measures have boosted confidence in Italy's finances, and fellow European leaders have made no secret they want to keep them in place.

Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-tainted ex-premier considering another run, commented scathingly on Monti's openness to another term.

`'I had a nightmare - still having a government with Monti," the media mogul said in an interview on state TV. He has said in the past that he would run again if Monti did not, but made no commitment Sunday about his own political future.

Monti, who after his resignation Friday is continuing in a caretaker role, ruled out heading any ticket - even a center-right grouping that Berlusconi said he would be willing to back.

But the 69-year-old economist made it clear he was willing to take another turn in power.

"If one or more political forces is credibly backing (my) agenda or even has a better one, I'd evaluate the offer," Monti said during a news conference.

"To those forces who demonstrate convincing and credible adherence to the Monti agenda, I am ready to give my appreciation, encouragement, and if requested, leadership, and I am ready to assume, one day, if the circumstances require it, the responsibility that would be entrusted to me by Parliament."

Monti refused to head any ticket himself, saying "I have no sympathy for `personal' parties."

Italy is struggling to shore up its finances and emerge from recession, a challenge made harder by its volatile politics. The country has had dozens of governments over the years that let tax evasion spread, avoided unpopular reforms like raising the retirement age, and allowed public spending to balloon.

Monti was appointed in November 2011 to head a non-elected government with the goal of saving Italy from a Greece-style debt debacle after financial markets lost faith in his populist predecessor, Berlusconi.

Berlusconi triggered Monti's resignation last week, a few months ahead of the term's end, when he yanked his Freedom Party's support in Parliament for the government. Parliament was then sent packing last week by Italy's president, and elections scheduled for Feb. 24-25.

Monti's announcement Sunday pleased some parties but irked others.

`'Yet again, Monti shows himself to be arrogant and (Pontius) Pilate-like," said Antonio Borghesi, a leader of the small center-left party that refused to back him during Monti's 13 months at the head of a non-elected government. "He won't directly commit himself, but he doesn't rule out that his name be used by others who share his agenda and he gives his willingness, if asked, to again be leader the country."

The tiny centrist Italy Future party, meanwhile, hailed Monti as a `'great political leader and international statesman," and said in a statement: "We reiterate our willingness to back with pride the agenda of Premier Monti."

The party's leaders include pro-Vatican politicians and industrialists, notably Luca di Montezemolo, president of Ferrari, the Italian Formula One racing team.

Monti said he was spurning Berlusconi's offer to sit out the election if Monti would head a center-right ticket. He expressed bewilderment at Berlusconi's sharp condemnation of his economic policies and his seemingly contradictory offer to back another Monti-led government.

"Yesterday, we read that he assessed the work of the (Monti) government to be a complete disaster. A few days earlier I read flattering things," Monti said of his predecessor. The logic "escapes me" Monti said, drawing chuckles.

Berlusconi has said he would try for a fourth term as premier if Monti doesn't run, even though he continues to face several legal and sex-related scandals.

Monti praised Parliament for backing his government's recipe of spending cuts, new taxes and pension reform, which he said saved Italy from the debt crisis.

"Italians as citizens can hold their heads up high in Europe," Monti said, noting Italy had avoided the bailouts that Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus have had to take.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano dissolved Parliament after Monti resigned Friday following approval of the country's national budget law. Monti noted that as a senator-for-life, he remains in Parliament and doesn't need to run for a seat in the legislature.

Voter opinion polls indicate a centrist ticket backing Monti would take about 15 percent of the vote, meaning any government he heads would need support from either of Italy's two largest political groupings: the center-right, led by Berlusconi, or the center-left, led by Pier Luigi Bersani.

After Monti's announcement Sunday, Bersani, whose forces turned out to be Monti's staunchest proponent this past year, vowed to keep up the premier's anti-crisis efforts.

By declining to directly campaign for February's balloting, Monti avoids a direct clash with him. On Sunday, Monti would only would say that Bersani is a highly "legitimate candidate for premier of a coalition."

In an interview on state TV later Sunday, Monti declined to say if he thought his agenda would get more backing from Bersani's or from Berlusconi's supporters.

Some had speculated that Monti had his sights set on the Italian presidency, since Napolitano's term ends this spring. But Monti ruled that out.