Italy elections set for February

ROME — Italy will go to the polls in February, officials said Saturday, amid uncertainty over whether Prime Minister Mario Monti will enter the political fray and fight flamboyant billionaire Silvio Berlusconi for the top job.

Monti’s resignation on Friday brought to a head weeks of speculation over whether the former eurocrat will play a major role in the February election, either as a candidate or a figurehead for centrist parties that pledge to continue his reforms.

"On the eve of the most important decision of his political life, the premier hesitates on the threshold. He’s gripped by doubts, he’s tormented," the left-wing Repubblica daily said, reflecting a flurry of press headlines over Monti’s apparent indecision.

The unelected Monti, appointed to head up a technocrat government last year as Italy battled the debt crisis, has kept his cards close to his chest, appearing reluctant to dive into the rough-and-tumble of Italian electoral politics.

He is expected to announce Sunday whether he will join the race. Sources close to the premier said that he had discussed his road map with President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday, but was keeping the country on tenterhooks.

"I am thinking things over. I have neither said yes nor no" to running in the campaign, he was quoted as saying by Italian media.

Napolitano dissolved parliament on Saturday, formally paving the way for the election and called for "a measured and constructive electoral campaign".

Italy’s cabinet announced that the election would take place February 24-25.

In any bid for leadership, the 69-year-old Monti "faces enormous obstacles, real mountains to climb," the financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore said.

Some political observers have said that Monti, a former European commissioner, is unlikely to run because he risks losing not only the election but also the credibility he has built on the international stage.

Instead, he may unveil a memorandum in which he lays out the measures any future government would have to accomplish to keep his programme on track, but not signal whether he will run or give any endorsements.

His decision is likely to determine the shape of the campaign, which could become a three-way race between scandal-tainted media magnate Berlusconi, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and a Monti-backed coalition.

Even if he does not run, the campaign will still largely be fought on the issue of whether to continue with Monti’s austerity agenda amid continuing economic uncertainty in recession-hit Italy.

While the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) thanked Monti for his leadership, it called for a break from the premier’s emergency programme to save the country.

"Italy now deserves a second phase," said Dario Franceschini, head of the PD in the lower house of parliament.

Berlusconi, who was forced out in November last year over the economic crisis, has blamed Germany for Italy’s woes and called for an end to austerity, while Monti has urged more budget discipline.

He has cone under fire, however, for failing to boost growth.

In his last speech as prime minister on Friday, Monti said his 13 months in government had been "difficult but engaging" and voiced hope that his reform agenda will continue under a new government.

European leaders in particular have favoured measures introduced by Monti to rein in Italy’s two trillion euro ($2.6 trillion) debt mountain and have urged him to run, not only to continue his programme but also to block a bid for power from the irrepressible Berlusconi.

Ordinary Italians, however, have been hit hard by Monti’s austerity measures and tax hikes, and his popularity rating has fallen from over 60 percent to around 30 percent in recent months.

Comedian Beppe Grillo, whose populist Five Star Movement has been winning votes among those critical of Monti’s austerity policy, mocked the premier’s departure and slammed his legacy.

"The Italians will quickly forget him, but the economic and institutional ruins will long outlast him," he said on his blog.

The current favourite to win is Bersani, but things could change if Monti decides to join the campaign and back a coalition of small centrist parties.

Monti’s name cannot officially be 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.

Three-time premier Berlusconi, 76, has said he will stand, though he has since vacillated wildly between declaring his support for Monti and heavily criticising his economic record.

Much of the publicity Berlusconi has garnered in previous weeks has centred around his new 27-year-old girlfriend -- a ploy, critics say, to win back voters.

The aim is "to try and cancel out the many stories of orgies which Berlusconi dragged into his mandate for three years ... and demonstrate that the old man is caring, is on form, and committed to the job," La Repubblica said.

Copyright © 2012 AFP