ROME Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said on Tuesday that he would stay on the job only as long as he is needed and "not a day more," eight months after breaking a political deadlock by agreeing to serve an unprecedented second term.
While it was widely believed the 88-year-old head of state would not serve his entire seven-year term, he made it clear in the president's traditional year-end TV address to the nation that he would step down as soon as he deemed it possible.
"I'll stay president until the situation of the country and its institutions make it necessary and possible, and until my strength holds up. Until then and not a day longer; and so certainly not for a very long time," Napolitano said at the end of a 20-minute speech.
Napolitano, who some refer to as "King George", used the powers of his office to help guide Italy through a burgeoning debt crisis in 2011 and a political stalemate earlier this year that led to the formation of broad, and sometimes unstable, governing coalition.
After replacing an embattled Silvio Berlusconi with Mario Monti in 2011, Napolitano this year handpicked Prime Minister Enrico Letta to form a government to pass badly needed reforms to overhaul the political system - especially with a new electoral law - and to boost economic growth.
"We will combat with the same energy those who express, with an exclusively destructive spirit, the will to bring the system to collapse without making realistic proposals and reforms," Letta said in a statement following his speech.
Opposition parties like Beppe Grillo's 5-Star Movement and Berlusconi's Forza Italia have called for elections in the spring, and have directed a barrage of attacks against Napolitano for opposing them and overplaying his role.
But Napolitano has repeatedly warned that a new electoral law, which has yet to be passed, is essential before the next national election or else the country will end up with the same political stalemate that followed February's vote.
While the president did not specifically say what must be done before he is prepared to step down, he said he hoped 2014 would bring economic growth after a two-year recession, new jobs, and the start of "an incisive institutional reform."
In what is normally used as a pep talk to the nation, Napolitano opened his eighth year-end address on a gloomy note: "The year that is about to end was one of the heaviest and most troubled Italy has endured since the republic was created" in 1946.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Richard Chang)