ROME Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi opened the door to a second term for technocrat premier Mario Monti on Tuesday by saying he was ready to drop plans to run in next year's election.
Berlusconi is well known for making surprise statements that are quickly reversed, but his comments suggested he had abandoned hope of winning enough support to mount a credible campaign as leader of the centre-right.
He said he wanted to unite a broad coalition capable of defeating the centre-left, which is well ahead in opinion polls.
"Silvio Berlusconi has always said and continues to say that he is ready to stand aside to allow all moderates to unite in a single force that can face the left together," he told his own Canale 5 television network.
"I have always wanted the good of the country I love, I have never had any personal ambition," he said.
He declined to say who would lead his People of Freedom (PDL) party in the election if he did step aside, but did not exclude a centre-right government led by Monti, who has repeatedly ruled out standing for election but said he would be willing to serve a second term if needed.
"Absolutely, I would not rule out it being Mario Monti. Ever since I've known him he has always been in the liberal camp, so it could easily be Mario Monti," he said.
Monti is strongly favored by Italy's business establishment and has enjoyed wide international backing for his efforts to rein in Italy's towering public debt and reform its stagnant economy.
But how far Berlusconi's announcement raises the likelihood of a second term for the former European commissioner remains very unclear, with opinion polls showing little public appetite for an encore by Monti.
The deeply divided centre-right is trailing in the opinion polls behind the centre-left, which backs Monti in parliament but has repeatedly said that the next government should be formed by a democratically elected coalition.
Monti himself has made clear that he will not stand as a candidate and that his offer to serve a second term would only be needed if no effective government could be formed after a vote due by April.
The secretary of Berlusconi's PDL, Angelino Alfano, on Monday raised the prospect of Berlusconi stepping aside and urged centrist UDC party leader Pier Ferdinando Casini to join forces in a broad alliance to defeat the left.
However Casini said Berlusconi's repeated record of "turnarounds" meant that he would be very cautious in responding to the invitation. Many outside observers were also skeptical.
"The suspicion of yet another tactical maneuver casts a heavy shadow on Alfano's announcement," Massimo Franco, one of Italy's most respected commentators, wrote in an editorial in the daily Corriere della Sera.
Berlusconi's decision could remove a major obstacle to the creation of a centre-right force spanning the PDL, UDC and even the small Future and Liberty for Italy (FLI) party, created by Berlusconi's estranged former ally Gianfranco Fini.
The smaller centrist parties have been unwilling to accept joining a coalition led by Berlusconi, who has been Italy's dominant political figure for the past two decades but has been plagued by scandals.
The confused political situation in Italy, the euro zone's third largest economy, has been a source of concern on financial markets, which have been worried that a weak and unstable government could emerge from the election.
Berlusconi, forced to step down last year in the middle of a mounting financial crisis, has hinted several times that he plans a return to the political front line but has never clearly confirmed his intentions.
The PDL, trailing badly in the opinion polls, has been in disarray with deep splits between diehard Berlusconi loyalists and others including centrist supporters of the Monti government who want to create a conventional European centre-right force.
According to an opinion poll published on Friday by the SWG polling institute, the centre-left parties combined have the support of 41.5 percent of the electorate, against just under 36 percent for the combined centre and centre-right parties.
The survey indicated that, while Monti was trusted by 42 percent of respondents, 52 percent did not want to see him continue in office after the election.
Italy's centre-left will hold a primary election in November to pick its election leader.
The main candidates are leader Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the Democratic Party, the largest centre-left force, Matteo Renzi, the 37 year-old mayor of Florence, and Nichi Vendola, leader of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Barry Moody and Kevin Liffey)