ROME Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi called on Friday for a change in economic policy after what he called a "disastrous" year of austerity under the technocratic government of Mario Monti.
The 76 year-old billionaire's latest attack adds to a series of often contradictory comments he has made in recent weeks that have deepened the political uncertainty before the next election, which is expected to be held in April next year.
Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party is expected to choose its candidate to run for prime minister after a primary on December 16. It has been deeply divided over whether or not to stick with Monti's economic program.
"The data after a year of technocratic government is disastrous and so I think there absolutely has to be a change in this economic policy imposed on us by Europe and above all by the hegemony of Germany," Berlusconi told reporters.
A series of protests in recent weeks have underlined public discontent with the tax hikes and spending cuts imposed by Monti to try to stabilize Italy's strained public finances.
Although many business leaders would like to see the former European Commissioner lead another government, 62 percent of Italians are against a Monti encore, while 22 percent are for it, according to an SWG poll for state-owned TV network RAI.
Monti's approval rating has halved to 36 percent, SWG said, compared with 71 percent when he took over 12 months ago. However his ratings are still higher than any of the main political party leaders.
At least for the moment, Berlusconi is not expected to run in the election although he has had several changes of mind that have spread confusion and disarray in his centre-right camp, especially among moderates who want to stick broadly with Monti's agenda.
Uncertainty has also increased following a stand-off between the PDL and Monti's government over the date for local elections in Lazio and Lombardy, two regions where centre-right governments were driven out by corruption scandals.
Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri wants the elections to be held on February 10 but PDL leaders, concerned about the impact of the regional vote, say it should be held on the same day as the national election expected in April.
A number of centre-right leaders have suggested the PDL should withdraw support for Monti if the local polls are not delayed, bringing down the government and forcing an election before April.
In a comment posted on his Facebook page, Berlusconi said a single election date would be preferable and added that one could be decided after a meeting on Friday evening between the speakers of the lower house and Senate with President Giorgio Napoletano.
The PDL, which backs Monti in parliament under a cross-party agreement with the centre-left Democratic Party, is trailing in the opinion polls is not expected to form the next government.
Berlusconi was forced to step down a year ago after a financial market crisis threatened to destabilize Italy's public debt, which now amounts to just under 2 trillion euros, or over 125 percent of gross domestic product.
He has only recently begun talking in public about politics after several months of silence.
He said on Friday that regional election results last month, which saw a surge in support for the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo, a relentless Monti critic, proved more than two thirds of Italians wanted a change.
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Louise Ireland and Greg Mahlich)