Monti offers to lead Italy if others accept his reforms

Monti offers to lead Italy if others accept his reforms

Italian caretaker prime minister Mario Monti said Sunday he was ready to lead the country's next government, but only if there was sizeable and credible support for his political manifesto, which he was in the process of publishing, dpa reported.

The move was seen as an appeal to centrist parties that have in the past weeks endorsed Monti as their prime ministerial candidate, but also to rebels from the centre-left and centre-right camps.

"I am not taking sides with anyone. But I am ready to ... provide leadership and take on responsibilities, if asked by parliament," Monti said in his first public speech since resigning on Friday.

Monti criticized calls to scrap property taxes - a stance championed by his centre-right predecessor Silvio Berlusconi - and vowed to defend tough pension and labour reforms introduced by his government - which are opposed by leftist unions and politicians.

"I can be a point of reference for one or more political forces which want to go down this road," the former European commissioner said on RAI state television, following a long press conference with Italian and foreign media.

He was immediately backed by Italia Futura (Future Italy), the party of Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo that has been preparing a pro-Monti camp including Christian Democrats and Berlusconi dissenters.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is leading in the polls, but is allied with a radical left party opposed to Monti, was more cautious. PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani said he was ready to "listen with great attention and respect" to the outgoing premier.

In contrast, Monti was slammed by Angelino Alfano, secretary of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party. Alfano told the SkyTG24 broadcaster that "any form of cooperation was out of the question."

Monti was highly critical of Berlusconi, saying he had been "gobsmacked" by the fact that his predecessor had offered for him to lead Italy's conservatives while, at the same time, criticizing Monti's work in office.

He rejected as "totally unfounded" accusations from Berlusconi of having been too yielding towards German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and said he "struggled to follow the linearity of thought" of his scandal-prone predecessor.

Monti's move is a gamble. Under his watch, Italy has slashed its deficit and regained confidence before markets and international partners. But the population has also had to endure steep tax rises, a worsening recession and spiking unemployment.

His would-be centrist allies are languishing around 10 per cent, according to recent polls. The PD-led camp is ahead with around 40 per cent, while Berlusconi and his potential allies are on 20-25 per cent.

"It would be more convenient for me not to do anything after this government," the 69-year-old admitted when asked whether he risked spending his political capital in what many predict will be a vicious election campaign.

Monti is a life senator, so he does not need to run for a parliamentary seat. He has been tipped as a possible new Italian president or economy minister in a PD-centrist coalition government, a likely outcome if centre-left parties fail to score a clear win.

Elections are due to take place on February 24-25. The other major election contender is the protest Five Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo, with more than 15 per cent.

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