Monti mystery as Italian election campaign begins

Italy's election campaign kicked off on Saturday amid uncertainty over whether Prime Minister Mario Monti will launch himself into the political fray and fight flamboyant billionaire Silvio Berlusconi for the top job.

Monti's resignation on Friday brought to a head weeks of speculation over whether the former eurocrat will play a major role in the February election, either as a candidate or a figurehead for parties that pledge to continue his reforms.

"On the eve of the most important decision of his political life, the premier halts on the threshold. He's gripped by doubts, he's tormented," the leftwing Repubblica daily said, reflecting a flurry of press headlines over Monti's apparent indecision.

The unelected Monti, appointed to head up a technocrat government last year as Italy battled the debt crisis, has kept his cards close to his chest, appearing reluctant to dive into the rough-and-tumble of Italian electoral politics.

But he is expected to announce Sunday whether he will join the race.

President Giorgio Napolitano was set to meet the head of Italy's lower and upper houses on Saturday before dissolving parliament and formally calling a general election likely to take place on February 24.

In any bid for leadership, the 69-year-old Monti "faces enormous obstacles, real mountains to climb," the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore said.

"Either he is convinced he has a mission to carry out in the name of Europe, and thus has no choice but to carry on with determination... or he fears the job is too difficult," columnist Stefano Folli wrote.

Some political observers have said Monti is unlikely to run because he risks losing not only the election but also the credibility he has built on the international stage.

Instead, he may unveil a memorandum in which he lays out the measures any future government would have to accomplish to keep his programme on track, but not signal whether he will run or give any endorsements.

His decision is likely to determine the shape of the campaign, which could become a three-way race between scandal-tainted media magnate Berlusconi, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and a Monti-backed coalition.

Even if he does not run, Monti's agenda is likely still to overshadow the campaign, which will largely be fought on the issue of whether to continue with austerity amid continuing economic uncertainty in recession-hit Italy.

While the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) thanked Monti for his leadership, it called for a break from the premier's emergency programme to save Italy, which had been made of "tears and blood."

"The technocratic government is over. Italy now deserves a second phase," said the party's head in the lower house, Dario Franceschini.

Berlusconi, who was forced out in November last year over the economic crisis, has blamed Germany for Italy's woes and called for an end to austerity, while Monti has urged more budget discipline but has been criticised for failing to boost growth.

In his last speech as prime minister on Friday, Monti said his 13 months in government had been "difficult but fascinating" and voiced hope his reform agenda will continue under a new government.

European leaders in particular have favoured measures introduced by Monti to rein in Italy's two trillion euro debt mountain and have urged him to run, not only to continue his programme but also to block a bid for power from the irrepressible Berlusconi.

Ordinary Italians, however, have been hit hard by Monti's austerity measures and tax hikes, and his popularity rating has fallen from over 60 percent to around 30 percent in recent months.

The current favourite is Bersani but things could change if Monti decides to join the campaign and back a coalition of small centrist parties.

Monti's name cannot officially be on the ballot as he is already a senator for life, but after the elections the former economics professor could still be appointed to a post in government, including prime minister.

Three-time premier Berlusconi, 76, has said he will stand, though he has since vacillated wildly between declaring his support for Monti and heavily criticising his economic record.

Much of the publicity the party lover has garnered in previous weeks has centred around his new 27-year-old girlfriend -- a ploy, critics say, to win back voters.

The aim is "to try and cancel out the many stories of orgies which Berlusconi dragged into his mandate for three years... and demonstrate that the old man is caring, is on form, and committed to the job," Repubblica said.

Berlusconi has said he can boost his low popularity back up to the levels of previous victorious campaigns, but his People of Freedom party (PDL) has been hit hard by internal divisions and may find it hard to rally.

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