Italian president urges austerity as election looms

Italy's president urged more austerity and called for bickering politicians to unite and drag the country from a "swamp" of public debt Monday, the start of a decisive week on the political scene.

"There must be a new season of discipline and a new drive of hard work and humility," Giorgio Napolitano said in a speech at the start of a key week in which Prime Minister Mario Monti is expected to resign, kicking off the campaign for elections likely to come in February.

"There is a tiring road ahead to drag Italy out of the swamp of a suffocating public debt," he said, adding that he wanted "continuity and stability".

"I appeal to political forces for an end to damaging divisions," Napolitano said, cautioning that squabbling could "burn" confidence in Italy.

The president also indirectly criticised Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party for withdrawing its support for Monti's government, which has brought forward the likely election date.

Monti has said he will step down as soon as next year's budget is approved but has given no hint on what his intentions are after that.

With just two months to go, it's not known if technocrat Monti will put his name forward, when the elections will be or even if plutocrat Berlusconi is really in the running.

The only certainty is that centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, an ex-communist who has said he will continue with Monti's reforms, is currently the favourite in the polls to win the elections.

"Monti's entrance into politics is just a question of days," the left-leaning Repubblica newspaper said, while the Corriere della Sera said the former Eurocrat would lay out a list of ideas to be taken up by pro-Monti parties, without his leadership.

Monti could also bid to become Italy's next president, a largely ceremonial role that occasionally acquires a stabilising influence on the country's notoriously riotous political scene.

European leaders, the Catholic Church, centrist parties and break-away dissidents from the centre-right have all pressed the premier to launch himself into the political fray.

"I believe Monti will stay, he will have to decide in what capacity, but he will in any case be a moral and political reference for many men and women who want to change politics," International Cooperation Minister Andrea Riccardi said on Sunday.

But Sergio Rizzo, Corriere della Sera columnist, warned that the aim to ally highly disparate pro-Monti groups was ambitious: "How all these people will manage to stay together, should the premier decide to take up the ship's helm and accept them on board, is a mystery."

"Doesn't a lifeboat this full risk capsizing?" he added.

The technocrat -- who came to power at the end of November 2011 amid a financial crisis -- was forced to announce his resignation after Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) pulled its support two weeks ago.

The media magnate then announced his own decision to run in the election -- before appearing to make a sudden about-turn, offering his support to Monti.

His hand may have been forced by the move among key supporters and former allies to break away from the party-loving magnate to support Monti, who they say would help keep Italy out of the eurozone debt crisis mire by staying on.

The increasingly erratic 76-year-old went on national television Sunday to invoke "vengeance before God" for his tax fraud conviction earlier this year and apologise to his former voters for hosting racy parties, blaming his behaviour on his loneliness.

He also announced that he now has a girlfriend -- 27-year-old Francesca Pascale, a former showgirl "who has beautiful body, but is even more beautiful inside."

Recent polls have shown that what would be Berlusconi's sixth election campaign in two decades would end in defeat at the hands of a resurgent centre-left.

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