* Monti open to appeals to stand from groups committed to reforms
* Attacks Berlusconi’s “bewildering” changes of position
* Says pro-European reform agenda must continue
By Gavin Jones and James Mackenzie
ROME, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Two days after stepping down, Mario Monti announced on Sunday he would consider seeking a second term as Italian prime minister if approached by allies committed to backing his austere brand of reforms.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government of experts to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, resigned on Friday but has faced growing calls to seek a second term at a parliamentary election on Feb. 24-25.
At stake is the leadership of the world’s eighth largest economy, where recession and public debt of more than 2 trillion ($2.63 billion) have aggravated investor concerns about growth and stability in the euro zone.
“If a credible political force asked me to be candidate as prime minister for them, I would consider it,” said Monti, who has imposed repeated tax hikes and spending cuts to shore up Italy’s strained public finances.
He had kept his position a closely guarded secret for weeks, and in recent days had appeared to be have strong doubts about whether to continue in front-line politics. He made clear that if he ran, it would probably be at the head of a centrist grouping.
Monti held back from committing himself fully to the race, and said he was aware any decision to stay in politics carried “many risks and a high probability of failure”.
“I am not in any party. I am ready to give my appreciation and encouragement, to be leader and to take on any responsibility I may be given by parliament,” he said.
As a senator for life, Monti has no need to run for election to parliament but he said he would publish a detailed agenda of recommendations for a future government and would potentially be willing to lead a party that adopted it as its own.
Still serving as caretaker leader, Monti is widely respected for restoring Italy’s reputation after the scandal-plagued era of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.
The former economics professor is backed strongly by Italy’s business establishment and by EU allies including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has been urged to stay by centrist groups ranging from disaffected former Berlusconi allies to the small UDC party, which is close to the Catholic church.
But there is little sign of enthusiasm for a second term among voters weary of his austerity policies. A survey last week showed 61 percent did not think he should stand. It said a potential centrist alliance under his leadership was likely to gain around 15 percent support.
Both Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which is leading in the opinion polls, have urged Monti not to stand in the election.
Berlusconi, who left office last year with fraud charges and a juvenile prostitution scandal hanging over him, has accused Monti’s “Germano-centric” government of worsening recession with austerity measures, including a deeply unpopular housing tax he has promised to scrap.
In an exchange which may give a taste of bitter campaigning to come, Berlusconi said his nightmare would be a government with Monti at its head and Gianfranco Fini, a former ally turned bitter foe who supports the premier, “coming out of the sewers”.
Fini’s lieutenant Fabio Granata responded by saying Berlusconi’s remark was “fitting for his court of thieves, mafiosi, corrupt politicians, slaves and prostitutes.”
Monti was also scathing about Berlusconi, whom he replaced as Italy teetered on the brink of disaster in November 2011.
He said he had been “bewildered” by the 76-year-old media tycoon’s frequent changes of position. And, in an interview with La Repubblica daily, he expressed incredulity that Italians might re-elect Berlusconi “after seeing the damage he did to the Italian economy and the credibility of the country”.
PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose party has backed Monti in parliament and pledges to maintain the broad course he has set, was more cautious, saying he would look at Monti’s reform proposals closely but that it would be up to voters to decide.
Monti said he hoped the next government would have a strong majority to pursue a programme that would extend the reforms his government had begun, in areas ranging from the labour market to justice and cutting the bloated cost of the political system.
He said the next government must not make easy election promises or backtrack on reforms: “We have to avoid illusory and extremely dangerous steps backwards.”
During his 13 months in office, Monti hiked taxes severely and chopped backed spending while pushing through reforms of the pension system, labour market and parts of the service sector.
However, many analysts said his efforts were too timid to significantly improve the outlook of a chronically sluggish economy, and Monti himself said that Italy was “only at the beginning of the structural reforms” required.
Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy, has been in recession since the middle of last year. Consumer spending is falling at its fastest rate since World War Two and unemployment has risen to a record high above 11 percent.