ROME Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti announced on Sunday he would consider seeking a second term if he is asked by a political force that backs his reform agenda and launched a sharp attack on his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, resigned on Friday but had faced growing calls to seek a second term at the election on February 24-25.
He had kept his position a closely guarded secret for weeks and in recent days had appeared to be have strong doubts about whether to continue in front-line politics.
Monti, who remains in office as caretaker prime minister, said he would be prepared to consider approaches to serve again from reform-minded centrist groups although he held back from committing himself fully to the race.
As a Senator for Life, Monti has no need to run for election to parliament but he said he would publish a detailed agenda of recommendations for a future government and would potentially be willing to lead a party that adopted it as its own.
"If a credible political force asked me to be candidate as prime minister for them, I would consider it," he told an end of year news conference, adding that he was aware the decision carried "many risks and a high probability of failure".
Monti is widely respected for restoring Italy's reputation after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi era but there is little sign of enthusiasm for a renewed term among voters weary of repeated tax hikes and spending cuts.
An economics professor backed strongly by Italy's business establishment, he has been urged to consider another term by centrist groups ranging from disaffected former Berlusconi allies to the small UDC party, which is close to the Catholic church.
However he did not explicitly endorse the centrists, who also include a new formation led by Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, saying that a true civic movement for reform "had to be much more broad".
"I am not in any party. I am ready to give my appreciation and encouragement, to be leader and to take on any responsibility I may be given by parliament," he said.
Both Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is leading in the opinion polls, have urged him not to stand in the election.
He said he hoped the next government would have a strong majority to pursue a programme that would extend the reforms his government had begun in areas ranging from the labour market to justice and cutting the bloated cost of the political system.
But a survey last week showed 61 percent did not think he should stand, with a potential centrist alliance under his leadership likely to gain around 15 percent support.
Monti will face strong opposition from Berlusconi, whom he criticised repeatedly during a two-hour news conference, saying he had been "bewildered" by the 76-year-old billionaire media tycoon's frequent changes of position.
In an interview published in the La Repubblica daily, he expressed incredulity that Italians could elect Berlusconi for a fifth term as prime minister "after seeing the damage he did to the Italian economy and the credibility of the country".
At his news conference, he said his government had taken over from the warring Berlusconi government at a time of profound crisis and turned Italy's international image around.
"Everyone in Europe knows that Italy counts much more in Europe now than a year ago," he said.
Monti has very wide backing among European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel or European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso but entering the election battle would draw him into what is likely to be a bitter campaign.
"Monti's attitude today rules out any possibility of cooperation," PDL secretary Angelino Alfano told SkyTG24 television.
PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose party has backed Monti in parliament, said he would look at Monti's reform proposals closely but that it would be up to voters to decide.
Outlining a broad policy platform to complete the reform agenda his technocrat administration began when it took office more than a year ago, Monti said the next government must not make easy election promises or backtrack on reforms.
"We have to avoid illusory and extremely dangerous steps backwards," Monti said.
Berlusconi has shifted between fierce criticism of Monti and offers to stand aside if he agreed to lead the centre-right in the election campaign but his approach has settled on attacking his "Germano-centric" technocrat government.
During his 13 months in office pushed through reforms of the pension system, labour market and parts of the service sector.
However, many analysts said his reform efforts were too timid to significantly improve the outlook of a chronically sluggish economy, and Monti himself said that Italy was "only at the beginning of the structural reforms" required.
Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, has been in recession since the middle of last year, consumer spending is falling at its fastest rate since World War Two and unemployment has risen to a record high above 11 percent.
(Editing by Barry Moody and Philippa Fletcher)