* Monti resigns, elections expected in February
* President to consult with political leaders Saturday
* Expected to dissolve parliament in next few days
* Uncertainty over Monti's election plans
By Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones
ROME, Dec 21 Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti
tendered his resignation to the president on Friday after 13
months in office, opening the way to a highly uncertain national
election in February.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an
unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year
ago, has kept his own political plans a closely guarded secret
but he has faced growing pressure to seek a second term.
President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to dissolve
parliament in the next few days and has already indicated that
the most likely date for the election is Feb. 24.
In an unexpected move, Napolitano said he would hold
consultations with political leaders from all the main parties
on Saturday to discuss the next steps. In the meantime Monti
will continue in a caretaker capacity.
European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel
and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso have
called for Monti's economic reform agenda to continue but
Italy's two main parties have said he should stay out of the
Monti, who handed in his resignation during a brief meeting
at the presidential palace shortly after parliament approved his
government's 2013 budget, will hold a news conference on Sunday
at which he is expected clarify his intentions.
Ordinary Italians are weary of repeated tax hikes and
spending cuts and opinion polls offer little evidence that they
are ready to give Monti a second term. A survey this week showed
61 percent saying he should not stand.
Whether he runs or not, his legacy will loom over an
election which will be fought out over the painful measures he
has introduced to try to rein in Italy's huge public debt and
revive its stagnant economy.
His resignation came a couple of months before the end of
his term, after his technocrat government lost the support of
Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party
in parliament earlier this month.
Speculation is swirling over Monti's next moves. These could
include outlining policy recommendations, endorsing a centrist
alliance committed to his reform agenda or even standing as a
candidate in the election himself.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has held a strong lead
in the polls for months but a centrist alliance led by Monti
could gain enough support in the Senate to force the PD to seek
a coalition deal which could help shape the economic agenda.
BERLUSCONI IN WINGS
Senior figures from the alliance, including both the UDC
party, which is close to the Roman Catholic Church, and a new
group founded by Ferrari sports car chairman Luca di
Montezemolo, have been hoping to gain Monti's backing.
He has not said clearly whether he intends to run, but he
has dropped heavy hints he will continue to push a reform agenda
that has the backing of both Italy's business community and its
The PD has promised to stick to the deficit reduction
targets Monti has agreed with the European Union and says it
will maintain the broad course he has set while putting more
emphasis on reviving growth.
Berlusconi's return to the political arena has added to the
already considerable uncertainty about the centre-right's
intentions and increased the likelihood of a messy and
potentially bitter election campaign.
The billionaire media tycoon has fluctuated between
attacking the government's "Germano-centric" austerity policies
and promising to stand aside if Monti agrees to lead the centre
right, but now appears to have settled on an anti-Monti line.
He has pledged to cut taxes and scrap a hated housing tax
which Monti imposed. He has also sounded a stridently
anti-German line which has at times echoed the tone of the
populist 5-Star Movement headed by maverick comic Beppe Grillo.
The PD and the PDL, both of which supported Monti's
technocrat government in parliament, have made it clear they
would not be happy if he ran against them and there have been
foretastes of the kind of attacks he can expect.
Former centre-left prime minister Massimo D'Alema said in an
interview last week that it would be "morally questionable" for
Monti to run against the PD, which backed all of his reforms and
which has pledged to maintain his pledges to European partners.
Berlusconi who has mounted an intensive media campaign in
the past few days, echoed that criticism this week, saying Monti
risked losing the credibility he has won over the past year and
becoming a "little political figure".