Italy awaits Monti's decision on political future

Sun Dec 16, 2012 6:13am EST

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By Philip Pullella

ASSISI, Italy, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti stood before the cold stones slabs that hold the remains of St Francis and prayed to the man who preached what the Franciscans call "the gift of discernment" - the wisdom and courage to make the right choice.

Monti will need that gift soon.

He has already said he will resign once Italy passes the next budget law but has yet to announce whether he will run for prime minister in next year's elections - which many European leaders want him to do.

An indication of his political future could come as soon as Sunday when he is due to meet President Giorgio Napolitano, the man who appointed him a year ago to lead a technocratic government charged with saving Italy from financial crisis. But most analysts judge his decision to be least a week away.

Being in Assisi at this critical moment for his - and Italy's - political future, was like a balm for Monti, who has been tugged by all sides on whether to enter active politics. It was solace from the storm.

"It was a big emotion," he told Reuters during a simple dinner with Franciscan monks and guests in the large refectory of the convent-basilica complex in the Umbrian hill town after he prayed before the tomb on Saturday night.

"It combined art, history, religion and simplicity, as St Francis preached to us," he said.

Saint Francis also preached discernment - the need for wisdom and enlightenment in making decisions.

When asked if the visit to the tomb of St Francis - where he prayed standing for a few minutes - will help him make his decision on his political future, he said: "Of course, of course it will," adding, however, that he did not know when he would make it.

In his year in office, Monti, 69, an economics professor and a former European commissioner, has passed a series of tax increases and reforms to steer Italy away from the risk of a Greek-style economic crisis.

Monti, a sober and reserved man with a keen understated sense of humour, has won high hosannas from the markets, which tremble at the uncertainty that a non-Monti government could bring to Italy and Europe.

European politicians from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Francois Hollande, shocked by the possibility that his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi could return to power, have heaped praise on Monti and urged him to run for office.

ELECTIONS IN FEBRUARY?

Monti is due to resign after the budget is passed - expected by the end of this week - and his government will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the elections, which will probably be held in February.

His government of non-political technocrats had been supported by both Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

But the PDL withdrew its support 10 days ago, prompting Monti to announce his resignation once the budget is approved.

The PD, projected by polls to win the elections, has pledged to continue his fiscal discipline and wants him to stay on in some role after the election, although not as prime minister.

It is widely expected that if Monti does not run for prime minister he will become Italy's next president, replacing the man who appointed him a year ago, Napolitano.

Centrist forces and the business community, headed by Luca di Montezemolo, the president of carmaker Ferrari, want Monti to lead a new political movement to contest the spring elections.

Berlusconi, who has changed his mind many times on whether he would run, now says he will not run if Monti leads a team of moderates and centre-right candidates.

Monti has studiously avoided commenting on his future.

At the meal with the monks in Assisi, he teased his hosts and their other guests when asked to cut a "panettone", a traditional Italian Christmas cake that concludes holiday meals.

"It seems - but is still premature to say - that I have arrived at the end, the cake, but it is still too early to say," he said, prompting roars of laughter since he was clearly referring to his political situation.

"For now, I'll just cut it," he said.

Since he took office in a financial crisis to replace the disgraced, scandal-ridden Berlusconi 13 months ago, Monti's austerity steps and budget discipline have helped cut borrowing costs and put Italy on the financial community's good list.

But while sometimes bitter fiscal medicine has made Monti a hero for the markets, it has been unpopular among Italians. The prime minister recognised this in a joke at the end of the meal.

"Above all, may I say that I hope that 2013 will be a better year than 2012 has been, even because it was all my fault," he said to more laughter.

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