Italy's Monti leaves political future open

ROME Tue Dec 11, 2012 6:00pm IST

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti gestures at the World Policy Conference in Cannes December 8, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard/Files

Italy's Prime Minister Mario Monti gestures at the World Policy Conference in Cannes December 8, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Gaillard/Files

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ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Tuesday he wanted to influence political debate in whatever role he fills after elections next year but he left his future open following speculation he may remain in politics.

Financial markets have reacted nervously to the uncertain political outlook facing Italy after the election and in particular to the return of Silvio Berlusconi as the candidate of the centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party.

Berlusconi criticised Monti's technocrat government on Tuesday, accusing it of accepting severe economic austerity policies dictated by Germany which had dragged Italy into recession.

Monti, drafted in to head an unelected government of technocrats last year at the height of a financial crisis that had threatened the stability of the entire euro zone, has so far kept silent on his future.

He said on Monday he was concentrating on his remaining time in government and not thinking about whether to stand as a candidate.

Speaking on state television RAI on Tuesday, he defended his government's economic record and warned against populism and "oversimplified" election promises that hid the true problems facing Italy and he again left his political plans open.

"Politics is above all a question of culture, that is, trying to give direction to people's ideas," he told state television RAI.

"I think I did it when I was a professor, I'm trying to do it in this brief period when I'm prime minister, I'm sure that whatever hat I'm wearing in future, I will continue to do it," he said.

"For the rest...," he said, leaving the phrase unfinished.

Whether or not he stands in the election, there has been wide speculation that Monti could become Italy's next president or join forces with a centrist grouping to take part in the campaign for national elections early next year.

European leaders lined up on Monday to praise Monti for restoring Italy's economic credibility after the severe financial crisis which drove Berlusconi from office last year amid a cloud of sexual and financial scandal.

"THE SPREAD IS A CON"

In a sign of the likely tone of the election campaign, Berlusconi said Germany had profited from the crisis and he accused Monti of pursuing what he described as a "Germano-centric" economic policy.

In a sign of the likely tone of the election campaign, Berlusconi said Germany had profited from the crisis and he accused Monti of pursuing what he described as a "Germano-centric" economic policy.

He said the sharp selloff on financial markets following the announcement at the weekend that he would lead the PDL in the campaign was the result of speculation aimed at thwarting Italian democracy.

He also poured scorn on financial markets and the main gauge of sentiment, the risk premium or "spread" over German bonds, which has become a staple of Italian news reports for more than a year.

Italian 10-year bond yields have risen to 4.8 percent and the risk premium or spread over safer German Bunds has widened to 350 basis points

"The spread is a con, an invention used to defeat a government majority voted for by Italians that was governing the country," he said in an interview on his own Canale 5 television network.

"We never heard of it before, people have only been speaking of it in the past year and what does it matter?"

Despite the reaction on financial markets, opinion polls give Berlusconi little chance of winning the election with centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani seen for the moment as the most likely prime minister after Monti.

He is struggling to hold his deeply divided party together and needs to find coalition partners among smaller parties including his former coalition allies in the Northern League.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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