* Monti defends record in front of friendly business
* Blames past governments for dragging Italy down
* Says reforms must continue after Feburary election
DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan 23 Outgoing Prime
Minister Mario Monti defended his reform efforts in front of an
audience of the world's financial elite on Wednesday and accused
past governments of plunging Italy into a spiral of unemployment
Monti, who was given a rare opportunity to address the
annual World Economic Forum, also got an open endorsement from
the influential forum's founder, Klaus Schwab, for his decision
to lead a centrist list at a general election in February.
"I owe it to my society, to those who pay the intolerable
price of unemployment," said Monti, explaining to delegates in
Davos, Switzerland, his decision to enter the political arena
after leading a technocratic government for just over a year.
"They are the victims of governments that have not
confronted tax evasion, corruption, rent-seeking..." he said,
referring to lack of competitiveness in the economy.
The well-disposed Davos audience of bankers, businessmen and
economists would have come as a welcome change from an
increasingly hostile climate at home, where Monti has faced
increasing pressure from opponents on both the left and right.
Opinion polls ahead of national elections on Feb. 24-25
currently point to centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani as the
next prime minister, possibly in a coalition with Monti.
However former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a fierce
critic of Monti, is closing the opinion poll gap, raising
questions about the stability of a new government.
Monti, a former European Commissioner, has been a favourite
with the financial establishment since he was appointed in late
2011 to lead Italy out of a crisis that threatened to scupper
Italian public finances and badly dent a fragile euro zone.
But elections have neared, his reform record has faced
scepticism from critics who say he did not go far enough, and
political rivals have argued that his austerity policies based
on steep tax hikes have driven the economy into deep recession.
At Davos, Monti rejected the criticism, pointing to restored
international credibility, a reform of the pension system, a
promise to present a balanced budget in structural, or
growth-adjusted terms this year and liberalisation measures.
The commitment to reforms were instrumental, Monti said, in
changing investors' attitude towards Italy, something which is
manifested in the halving of the cost of government debt since
he took office at the peak of the euro crisis last autumn.
Yet the country, which he sees intrinsically linked to the
future of the European Union and the euro, needs to continue
with the same pace on the path of reforms, he said.
"Whatever the next government in Italy, I hope they will be
able to keep the same spirit of emergency and urgency that we
felt as we were on the brink of the catastrophe," he said.