* Monti leaves options open over standing in election
* Says may stand at head of centrist alliance
* Opens himself to attacks in more political role
ROME, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Outgoing Italian Prime Minister
Mario Monti has many unquestioned qualities but it is starting
to seem that bold political decision-making may not be one of
After keeping his supporters waiting for weeks to know
whether he would lead them in Italy's upcoming election, Monti
held an eagerly awaited news conference on Sunday - and
announced that they would have to wait a little longer.
For most of his 13 months in office Monti repeated that he
would withdraw from politics when his term ended.
In September he changed tack and said he would be willing to
serve a second term but only if the election produced no clear
winner, and then in the last few weeks he let it be known that
he was considering actually running in the election.
Monti's indecision over whether to stand or not dominated
Italian media coverage in just the same way that similar changes
of position by his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi had done a
couple of months earlier.
The issue dominated the two-hour news conference but by the
end of it, journalists were still scratching their heads over
what the former European commissioner had actually decided.
"I have to say that I still don't understand anything,"
Lucia Annunziata, one of Italy's most experienced journalists
told Monti in a television interview later in the day.
Roberto Maroni, the leader of the pro-devolution Northern
League party, tweeted his derision.
"I'm not running, but maybe I am ... Monti has learned from
the most false Christian Democrats of the first Republic," he
said, referring to the party that ruled Italy for 60 years after
World War Two and was famed for its opaque political intrigues.
The picture is now somewhat clearer and can be summed up as
follows: Monti will present a list of policy priorities and wait
to see if a credible centrist alliance emerges that adopts the
plan as its own and has a chance of doing well in the election.
If this happens, he will agree to stand at the election as
the alliances's candidate for prime minister.
While this strategy may seem a cautious one, the risk for
Monti is that by promoting a centrist alliance he has sacrificed
his aura as a non-partisan technocrat. After being put on a
pedestal for most of his premiership, he will now be fiercely
attacked in the election campaign by left and right alike.
It may also all be for nothing, as polls show the centrist
parties that back Monti currently command no more than about 10
percent of the vote.
Monti said he hoped new forces from "civil society" emerge
to join forces with them and create a major bloc, yet he
admitted this was a gamble with "many risks and a high
probability of failure".
If the snowball effect does not materialise, it can be
assumed that Monti will simply decline to offer his name to any
party, and will be no more than an onlooker at the election.
A taste of what he is in for in his new role as politician
rather than technocrat was already clear on Sunday from
potential foes at the election. Berlusconi said a new Monti
government would be a "nightmare".
Another risk for Monti is that what follows may partly
overshadow the notable achievements of what has gone before.
The 69-year-old former economics professor replaced the
scandal-plagued Berlusconi last year as sky rocketing borrowing
costs threatened to plunge Italy into a Greek-style debt crisis.
When Berlusconi pulled his backing for Monti's technocrat
government on Dec. 6, the gap between Italy's benchmark bonds
and safer German Bunds stood below 3.2 percentage points,
little more than half the level when Monti took over.
With his economist's training and measured, sober manner
Monti was the perfect antidote to the discredited Berlusconi.
His rapport with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been
particularly crucial as for the first time in years Italy's view
began to be taken seriously in European decision-making.
In a heady first few months that saw him named European of
the year in the French parliament and feted by the international
media he acted decisively to convince investors that Italy could
bring its finances under control.
Capitalising on record approval ratings he rushed through 20
billion euros ($25.86 billion) of deficit cuts including a
widely praised pension reform to raise the retirement age.
He lost some of that shine, at least domestically, as the
months went on and the recession deepened, aggravated by a raft
of tax hikes. Subsequent reforms to deregulate services and the
labour markets got bogged down and diluted by parliamentary and
Economists are divided over the quality of Monti's attempts
to free up Italy's economy but he has remained the darling of
financial markets and he undoubtedly began to address
deep-rooted problems that festered unattended for years.
He said this week that the structural reforms needed to make
Italy competitive had only just begun. Investors will be pleased
to see that there is still a chance that after February's
election Monti till still be in charge to tackle them.