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Italy election campaign kicks off as Monti quits

24 december 2012, 11:22
0
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. ©AFP
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. ©AFP
Italy's election campaign kicked off in earnest on Saturday after Prime Minister Mario Monti's resignation opened the way for a contest dominated by a raging debate over austerity in the recession-hit country, AFP reports.

President Giorgio Napolitano was set to begin talks with political leaders in the key eurozone state on Saturday before dissolving parliament and formally calling a general election.

Monti, appointed to head up a technocrat government last year as Italy battled the debt crisis, has been called on by his supporters to run in the February election or endorse parties which pledge to continue his reforms.

Monti's arch-rival, the flamboyant Silvio Berlusconi, has blamed Germany for Italy's woes and called for an end to austerity, while Monti has urged more budget discipline.

The unelected Monti has kept his cards close to his chest, appearing reluctant to dive into the rough-and-tumble of Italian electoral politics, but is expected to announce Sunday whether he will enter into the fray.

His decision is likely to determine the shape of the campaign, which could become a three-way race between Berlusconi, centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani and a Monti-backed coalition.

Observers say the vote will probably take place on February 24. For the moment, the premier will stay on in a caretaker capacity.

In his last speech as prime minister ahead of a final cabinet meeting on Friday, Monti said that his 13 months in government had been "difficult but fascinating" and voiced hope that his reform agenda will continue under a new government.

Italy was now "more reliable" on the international stage, he said.

European leaders in particular have favoured measures introduced by Monti to rein in Italy's vast debt and have urged him to run, not only to continue his programme but also to block a bid for power from the irrepressible Berlusconi.

The current favourite in the polls is Bersani but things could change if Monti decides to join the campaign and back a coalition of small centrist parties as some Italian media have been reporting.

Monti's name cannot officially be on the ballot as he is already a senator for life, but after the elections the former economics professor could still be appointed to a post in government, including prime minister or finance minister.

Three-time premier Berlusconi has said he will stand, though he has since vacillated wildly between declaring his support for Monti -- offering at the same time to withdraw his own candidacy -- and heavily criticising Monti's economic record.

Scandal-hit Berlusconi, 76, has said he can boost his low popularity back up to the levels of previous victorious campaigns, but his People of Freedom party (PDL) has been hit hard by internal divisions and may find it hard to rally.

Bersani, who has promised to continue Monti's reforms and tackle the country's high unemployment levels, has said he would be surprised if the former Eurocrat entered the race but is ready to fight him for the top job.

Monti rescued Italy from the brink of bankruptcy, launching long-delayed pension and labour market reforms and joining other eurozone leaders in battling the debt crisis.

But ordinary Italians have been hit hard by his austerity measures and tax hikes which have squeezed the middle class in particular, and his popularity rating has fallen from over 60 percent to around 30 percent in recent months.

While the business world and the Catholic Church have been hugely supportive of Monti, he has been cautioned in some quarters not to run.

Berlusconi said the outgoing prime minister risked becoming a "small player" on the political scene if he allied with "little parties".

The media magnate, who will be running for the top job a sixth time, was convicted of tax fraud this year and is a defendant in a trial for having sex with an underage prostitute.

Some political observers have said Monti is unlikely to be a candidate because he risks losing not only the election but also the credibility he has built on the international stage.

Instead, these observers say, the professorial Monti will unveil a memorandum in which he lays out the measures any future government would have to accomplish to keep his programme on track.

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