After quitting, premier could take on Berlusconi in upcoming election or vie for presidency

Italian leader leaves options open


Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s decision to resign has left the door wide open for the former Eurocrat to run in the upcoming general election, or take on the mediator role of president.

For now, the professorial 69-year-old — whose first foray into politics was his emergency appointment to power at the end of 2011 — has stayed true to his reputation for prudence, refusing to let slip his intentions. “I am not considering this particular issue at this stage,” he told reporters in Oslo on Monday when asked whether he intended to run.

But sources close to the prime minister say he is tempted by the idea, particularly after Silvio Berlusconi said his election campaign would be dead set against the Monti agenda.

“I am very worried, not about my own fate but about what I see,” Monti said in an interview with the Repubblica daily, referring to creeping populism, anti-European sentiment and the risk that his work may be undone by a future government heedless of the dangers of damaging market confidence in Italy.

Monti announced Saturday that he would step down when Parliament adopts next year’s budget, after Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party withdrew its support for his government.

French President Francois Hollande on Monday said he had detected “no despondency” in Monti but rather “a desire to commit to his country.”

“I don’t know what role he wants to take, and it’s not for me to say. But I found that he was mobilized rather than disarmed,” he said.

Myriad small, centrist parties, meanwhile, are pushing for Monti to stay, either as a candidate or as a figurehead for a reformist coalition — an idea spearheaded by the new movement founded by Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.

Such a Monti-led alliance could bring together various moderates and centrists, particularly from the Catholic-leaning Union of the Center, headed by Pier Ferdinando Casini.

“Faced with a populist right . . . our work, which has the interest of the country at heart and is trying to pull allies together around Monti, becomes even more important,” said Lorenzo Dellai, a representative for Montezemolo’s Towards the Third Republic movement.

According to La Stampa newspaper, polling experts are already discreetly working “to measure the electoral impact of a possible Monti list.”

A poll published by the SWG institute Friday, the day before Berlusconi announced his return to front-line politics, gave Monti a 33 percent popularity rating — his worst since coming to power, as the economy continues to flounder and ordinary Italians tire of austerity and taxes. Another survey by Ispo last month had found that a party headed by Monti would win some 35 percent of votes — putting it neck and neck with the center-left Democratic Party, led by Pier Luigi Bersani, which is currently tipped to win the election although without an outright majority.

On Monday, as the election campaign unofficially kicked off, Bersani said he was in favor of Monti staying on but in an advisory role. “I’ve always said that Monti can still be useful for the country . . . but it would be better if he stayed out of the campaign,” he said.

Corriere della Sera quoted Monti as saying that should he decide to run, he would do so in the name of “the citizens who have made sacrifices over these past months” and in order “not to waste the treasure of political and cultural initiatives we have accumulated during a year in government.”

Thanks to his international reputation, Monti could gain the support of defectors from the Berlusconi camp. Former Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno are among those who could be interested in switching sides.

The head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, on Monday praised “the technocrat government that has sheltered Italy from humiliating falls and high risks.”

Berlusconi, three times elected prime minister, has shrugged off the threat of competition from Monti, saying, “Let him be a candidate if he wants, I’m not afraid of him.” However, the media magnate is now faced with the mammoth task of turning around a pitiful 15 percent share of the vote in a matter of weeks.

Bruno Tabacci, a former Christian Democrat lawmaker who has swung over to the left, said he thought Monti would stay in politics, but to replace President Giorgio Napolitano, whose mandate runs out in five months.

“He could be an excellent president, particularly as his European side would be a guarantee that Italy would not leap into the void,” he told Rai News television Monday.

Whatever path Monti chooses to take, it is unlikely that the former dean of the training ground of Italy’s economic elite — Milan’s Bocconi University — will retreat into the shadows.