UPDATE 4-Italy's Monti opens door to seeking new term

* Monti open to appeals to stand from groups committed to

reforms

* 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.

24-25.

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

grouping.

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.

BITTER ELECTION

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

election.

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.

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