Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on Sunday gave his strongest signal yet that he may not run in February elections, just hours ahead of a news conference on his political future.
"I still don't know (whether to run). But something inside me is telling me not to," Monti said in an interview published Sunday by the Repubblica daily.
With Italy keenly awaiting the outgoing premier's decision, expected to be made at an end of year press conference at 1000 GMT, Monti appeared to be backing away from the race.
Favoured by European leaders, the markets and the Catholic Church, Monti has been urged to put himself forward as a candidate in the February 24-25 election to prevent Italy from slipping back into a debt crisis mire -- and to block the possible return of the scandal-tainted Silvio Berlusconi.
But after days of rumours in the halls of power that Monti, who was parachuted into the job and has never been elected, is ready to enter the fray, political observers have done an about-turn, saying he is wracked by doubts over whether to run.
"Monti has to reveal his intentions once and for all. The country needs clarity," the Sole 24 Ore financial daily said.
If he does put his hat in the ring, he will find himself up against centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, a cigar-chomping ex-communist who is the current favourite.
He would also have to take on billionaire Berlusconi, who has already begun to boost his low popularity levels with an intense media campaign which he hopes will land him the premiership for a fourth time.
Monti's name cannot officially be put 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.
Much of Monti's support has come from small centrist parties which hope he will lead or endorse them in the campaign, but recent polls suggest he would be unlikely to boost their votes enough to beat Berlusconi.
The former eurocrat told the Repubblica he thought running for the job might jeopardise a potential alliance between the centre-left and centrists parties.
After a mandate based on austerity, Monti has lost favour among Italians and his popularity ratings have plunged, from more than 60 percent shortly after he took over last year to around 30 percent in recent weeks.
Some observers say he is unwilling to risk losing the respect he has earned abroad by entering, and losing, a messy election battle.
Lina Palermini, political commentator at Il Sole 24 Ore financial daily, said Monti was unlikely to make any big announcements on Sunday, but would play for time.
"He will present his political manifesto, an appeal to Italians and the political forces," she said.
"It will only be afterwards, on the basis of the amount of support gained and his standing in the opinion polls, that he will decide on a political plan," she added.
Asked by the Repubblica's Eugenio Scalfari whether he did not fear leaving the way for the return of scandal-hit Berlusconi to power, Monti said:
"Could he be voted in for the sixth time? After seeing the damage he has done to the Italian economy and the country's credibility?"
Berlusconi, who was convicted of tax fraud in October and is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute and abuse of power, has begun a strident campaign against Monti's economic policies.
In refusing thus far to let slip his intentions, the professorial 69-year-old Monti -- whose first foray into politics was his emergency appointment to power at the end of 2011 -- has stayed true to his reputation for prudence.
Should he decide not to hit the campaign trail, "he will certainly be weaker... but his agenda will remain on the table and whoever governs will be unable to ignore it," the Sole 24 Ore said.
Italy's best-selling Corriere della Sera, however, said that "the parties are now fleeing from the Monti agenda," which has squeezed ordinary Italians hard.
As Italy look back over what he has accomplished in office, his success in rescuing the country from potential bankruptcy is increasingly offset by growing bitterness over his biting austerity policies.
"Painful cuts, an exhausting climb back up... Italy is miraculously still standing, but we don't know how," La Stampa newspaper said, while Il Fatto Quotidiano described Monti's reign as "13 months of tears and blood."