Italy's Mario Monti weighs whether to run against Silvio Berlusconi in polls
PM to announce today whether he will run in polls or endorse parties opposed to Berlusconi
Agence France-Presse in Rome
Italy's president dissolved the parliament yesterday to set the stage for general elections early next year as Prime Minister Mario Monti weighs whether to run for office after handing in his resignation.
Monti, appointed 13 months ago to steer Italy away from a Greek-style debt crisis, stepped down on Friday after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's party yanked its support for his technical government.
Monti has been called on by his supporters to run in the February election or endorse parties that pledge to continue his reforms. His arch-rival, the flamboyant Berlusconi, has blamed Germany for Italy's woes and called for an end to austerity, while Monti has urged more budget discipline.
The unelected Monti has kept his cards close to his chest, appearing reluctant to dive into the rough and tumble of Italian electoral politics, but is expected to announce today whether he will enter into the fray. His decision is likely to determine the shape of the campaign, which could become a three-way race between Berlusconi, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and a Monti-backed coalition.
"On the eve of the most important decision of his political life, the premier halts on the threshold. He's gripped by doubts, he's tormented," the Repubblica daily said, reflecting a slurry of headlines in Italy's national press over Monti's apparent indecision.
Observers say the vote will probably take place on February 24. For the moment, Monti will stay on in a caretaker capacity.
In his last speech as prime minister ahead of a final cabinet meeting on Friday, Monti said that his 13 months in government had been "difficult but fascinating" and voiced hope that his reform agenda will continue under a new government. Italy was now "more reliable" on the international stage, he said.
The favourite in the polls is Bersani but things could change if Monti decides to join the campaign and back a coalition of small centrist parties.
Three-time prime minister Berlusconi has said he will stand, though he has since vacillated wildly between declaring his support for Monti - offering at the same time to withdraw his own candidacy - and heavily criticising Monti's economic record.
Bersani, who has promised to continue Monti's reforms and tackle the country's high unemployment levels, has said he would be surprised if the former Eurocrat entered the race but is ready to fight him for the top job.
Monti rescued Italy from the brink of bankruptcy, launching long-delayed pension and labour market reforms and joining other euro-zone leaders in battling the debt crisis. But ordinary Italians have been hit hard by his austerity measures and tax increases, which have squeezed the middle class in particular, and his popularity rating has fallen from over 60 per cent to around 30 per cent.
Some political observers have said Monti is unlikely to be a candidate because he risks losing the credibility he has built on the international stage.