* Monti open to appeals to stand from groups committed to
* Attacks Berlusconi's "bewildering" changes of position
* Says pro-European reform agenda must continue
ROME, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Two days after stepping down, Mario
Monti announced on Sunday he would consider seeking a second
term as Italian prime minister if approached by allies committed
to backing his austere brand of reforms.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an
unelected government of experts to save Italy from financial
crisis a year ago, resigned on Friday but has faced growing
calls to seek a second term at a parliamentary election on Feb.
At stake is the leadership of the world's eighth largest
economy, where recession and public debt of more than 2 trillion
($2.63 billion) have aggravated investor concerns about growth
and stability in the euro zone.
"If a credible political force asked me to be candidate as
prime minister for them, I would consider it," said Monti, who
has imposed repeated tax hikes and spending cuts to shore up
Italy's strained public finances.
He had kept his position a closely guarded secret for weeks,
and in recent days had appeared to be have strong doubts about
whether to continue in front-line politics. He made clear that
if he ran, it would probably be at the head of a centrist
Monti held back from committing himself fully to the race,
and said he was aware any decision to stay in politics carried
"many risks and a high probability of failure".
"I am not in any party. I am ready to give my appreciation
and encouragement, to be leader and to take on any
responsibility I may be given by parliament," he said.
As a senator for life, Monti has no need to run for election
to parliament but he said he would publish a detailed agenda of
recommendations for a future government and would potentially be
willing to lead a party that adopted it as its own.
Still serving as caretaker leader, Monti is widely respected
for restoring Italy's reputation after the scandal-plagued era
of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.
The former economics professor is backed strongly by Italy's
business establishment and by EU allies including German
Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has been urged to stay by centrist
groups ranging from disaffected former Berlusconi allies to the
small UDC party, which is close to the Catholic church.
But there is little sign of enthusiasm for a second term
among voters weary of his austerity policies. A survey last week
showed 61 percent did not think he should stand. It said a
potential centrist alliance under his leadership was likely to
gain around 15 percent support.
Both Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party
and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is leading in
the opinion polls, have urged Monti not to stand in the
Berlusconi, who left office last year with fraud charges and
a juvenile prostitution scandal hanging over him, has accused
Monti's "Germano-centric" government of worsening recession with
austerity measures, including a deeply unpopular housing tax he
has promised to scrap.
In an exchange which may give a taste of bitter campaigning
to come, Berlusconi said his nightmare would be a government
with Monti at its head and Gianfranco Fini, a former ally turned
bitter foe who supports the premier, "coming out of the sewers".
Fini's lieutenant Fabio Granata responded by saying
Berlusconi's remark was "fitting for his court of thieves,
mafiosi, corrupt politicians, slaves and prostitutes."
Monti was also scathing about Berlusconi, whom he replaced
as Italy teetered on the brink of disaster in November 2011.
He said he had been "bewildered" by the 76-year-old media
tycoon's frequent changes of position. And, in an interview with
La Repubblica daily, he expressed incredulity that Italians
might re-elect Berlusconi "after seeing the damage he did to the
Italian economy and the credibility of the country".
PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose party has backed Monti
in parliament and pledges to maintain the broad course he has
set, was more cautious, saying he would look at Monti's reform
proposals closely but that it would be up to voters to decide.
Monti said he hoped the next government would have a strong
majority to pursue a programme that would extend the reforms his
government had begun, in areas ranging from the labour market to
justice and cutting the bloated cost of the political system.
He said the next government must not make easy election
promises or backtrack on reforms: "We have to avoid illusory and
extremely dangerous steps backwards."
During his 13 months in office, Monti hiked taxes severely
and chopped backed spending while pushing through reforms of the
pension system, labour market and parts of the service sector.
However, many analysts said his efforts were too timid to
significantly improve the outlook of a chronically sluggish
economy, and Monti himself said that Italy was "only at the
beginning of the structural reforms" required.
Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, has been in
recession since the middle of last year. Consumer spending is
falling at its fastest rate since World War Two and unemployment
has risen to a record high above 11 percent.