ROME (Reuters) - Centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani is favourite among Italians to lead the next government, with outgoing technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti second most popular and Silvio Berlusconi coming a close third, a poll showed on Sunday.
Bersani scored 36.2 percent, Monti 23.3 percent and Berlusconi 21.8 percent, the poll, conducted by the CISE electoral research institute for Il Sole 24 Ore daily, found.
Whoever wins the February 24-25 elections will have to tackle a deep recession and rising unemployment in the euro zone's third largest economy as well as keeping strained public finances under control.
Monti said on Friday he would lead a centrist alliance, setting up a three-way contest with Bersani's Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL). The poll of 1,309 Italians was carried out between December 22 and December 28.
A former European Commissioner, Monti was appointed to lead an unelected government of experts to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago.
He is a favourite with international investors, the Catholic Church, and the business establishment, and has been widely credited with restoring Italy's credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi years.
The coalitions that will back the prime ministerial candidates are not yet finalised but 34.6 percent of respondents in the poll said they would vote for Bersani's PD, 19.7 percent Berlusconi's PDL, and 14.3 percent the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement if parliamentary elections were held now.
The UDC, Italy's largest centrist party which is among those backing Monti, came in fourth place with 6.4 percent.
In a separate article in La Stampa daily, several leading political researchers said Monti could attract up to 20 percent of the vote by eroding support for both the centre left and centre right and convincing undecided Italians.
However, many Italians have become increasingly tired of the painful tax hikes he has introduced to repair Italy's strained public finances.
The poll showed that 34 percent of Italians think the most important initiative for the next government will be adjusting public spending so that taxes can be cut.
About 24 percent put the fight against tax evasion as the most pressing concern, while 15 percent want the focus to be on moving the fiscal burden away from companies and workers and towards wealthy individuals.
Reporting by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Louise Ireland