* No hint of plans after Sunday meeting with Italy president
* In visit to Assisi, Monti gets some solace from the storm
* Europe politicians, markets want Monti to succeed himself
By Philip Pullella
ASSISI, Italy, Dec 16 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.
No decision was announced after a Sunday meeting to discuss
his political future with President Giorgio Napolitano, the man
who appointed him a year ago to lead a technocratic government
charged with saving Italy from financial meltdown.
Napolitano told reporters that Monti would reveal any
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
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
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.