ROME Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Monday he was aiming to win a majority in a parliamentary election in February and would seek alliances with parties agreeing with his pro-Europe agenda.
While not explicitly saying so, Monti appeared to indicate he was open to an alliance with the centre left - led by Pier Luigi Bersani, who polls say is on track to win the election - although not until after the vote.
The statement came a day after Bersani pressured Monti to choose sides. Silvio Berlusconi, the conservative businessman who is seeking his fifth term as premier, has accused Monti of striking a hidden deal to favour the left.
Due to the complexities of the electoral law, Bersani's two-party coalition could win a comfortable majority in the lower house without taking a secure command of the Senate, possibly making an alliance with Monti's bloc crucial to creating a stable parliamentary majority.
"The new movement is born with the aim of gathering the consensus of the majority of Italians," Monti said on his website.
"Whether this objective is fully achieved, or whether that is not the case, we will seek convergence with political forces that adopt a line of action that is compatible with our European strategy."
A former European Commissioner, Monti was appointed a year ago to lead an unelected government of experts to save Italy from financial crisis after Berlusconi stepped down. He announced his bid for a second term last week.
Monti said Italy must remain a central player in European politics and integration and that his goal was to stem the rise of populist and anti-European parties, which he felt were growing at an alarming rate in Italy.
His views were echoed by President Giorgio Napolitano, who said in his end-of-year address that Italy would return to growth only if it worked closely with its European partners, and that it must remain a strong protagonist in Europe.
Monti said on Friday he would lead a centrist alliance in the election and wanted to go beyond the traditional left-right split to unite a coalition of factions around a reform agenda aimed at tackling Italy's deep recession and economic woes.
Bersani has pledged to stick to the pro-European stance of Monti's unelected technocrat government and to continue on the course of economic reform.
Berlusconi has blamed Germany for the austerity measures Italy has had to pass to cut its huge debt, and blasted Monti as Germany's puppet.
Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, likely to pose a serious threat to traditional parties in the election, has called for a referendum on membership of Europe's single currency and attacked Monti for his tax hikes and spending cuts.
Whoever wins the February 24-25 election will have to tackle the recession and rising unemployment in the euro zone's third largest economy as well as keeping strained public finances under control.
In a separate statement, Monti's office rebuffed criticism of his reforms, which have also included deregulation and an overhaul of the pension and labour system, and said that Italy's economic outlook had improved "significantly" since he took over.
In an 18-page document entitled "An Analysis of a Year in Government", the administration said its actions had convinced foreign investors to resume buying Italian bonds and the prospect of new budget adjustments had been "strongly reduced".
But it also stressed that the path of reform was just beginning and must be pursued by the next government, and added that the new goal would be to reduce tax pressure, especially on poorer people.
It said public spending would have to be cut further through measures such as the streamlining and closure of some public institutions, and through more efforts to reduce waste and corruption.
President Napolitano acknowledged in his address that Italians had made difficult sacrifices this year but they had been necessary. He said efforts should be made to ease the fiscal burden on vulnerable people.
An opinion poll on Sunday showed that 34 percent of Italians thought the most important initiative for the next government will be adjusting public spending so that taxes can be cut.
The survey, published in financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore, showed that about 36 percent of Italians would vote for Bersani to become the next prime minister, while about 23 percent would choose Monti, and around 22 percent would opt for Berlusconi.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)