By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti's declaration that he would be willing to serve a second term if asked may have reassured international investors, but there is no way around the treacherous waters of Italian politics.
It was no accident that Monti, an economist brought in last year to run an emergency government of technocrats, made his announcement in New York; just a short taxi ride from Wall Street, he was comfortably far from the fevered atmosphere in Rome, where manoeuvring for the 2013 election is in full swing.
Business leaders and financial investors fretting about what may follow have long been keen on what the press has dubbed "Monti bis", or Monti-2, a second dose of the apolitical cabinet appointed by President Giorgio Napolitano when Silvio Berlusconi quit at the height of the euro zone debt crisis.
But the main political parties, preparing for an election due no later than April, made it clear that they would not be excluded from the process of selecting the next leader.
Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), said he would not stand for any attempt to "pre-write the election result and make the vote a waste of time".
Former prime minister Berlusconi's first response was more cautious. "There are elections first," was all the conservative would say on Thursday, immediately after Monti's declaration.
Bersani's cool reaction was hardly surprising given that the PD is leading in most opinion polls and he could become prime minister himself. But his words concealed a more complex reality for a political system badly in need of the kind of credibility enjoyed by Professor Monti, a former European Commissioner.
With a vote due no later than April, the main parties are caught in a stalemate of their own making, unclear about who will lead them into the election, what policies they will promote or even what electoral law will apply on polling day.
An uninterrupted wave of scandal, most recently at the local centre-right government in the region around Rome, has badly tarnished the already battered image of politicians in general, leaving Monti far more popular than any of the party leaders.
The 69-year-old has ruled out standing as a candidate himself and stressed that he would only serve if elections produced no clear winner, leaving Italy vulnerable to the kind of financial market turmoil that brought him to power last year.
He has insisted that Italy will not need help from the International Monetary Fund or the European Union to get through the crisis.
But with Italy's public debt set to top 126 percent of gross domestic product this year, the economy in recession and youth unemployment over 35 percent, the threat is never far off and the political uncertainty is not helping.
According to a survey by the SWG polling institute published on Friday, the PD would be the biggest party with 26 percent of the vote, ahead of Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) with 15 percent.
"Broadly speaking, the PDL looks out of it. It doesn't look like winning or even playing a decisive role," said SWG vice president Maurizio Pessato. "The PD looks like at least being able to create a coalition around itself."
The party faces a primary battle in November to choose who will lead it into the election - Bersani or the young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Neither is keen to be upstaged by Monti before their race has even started.
A PD official close to Bersani said that the party would only agree to Monti serving as prime minister if there were something close to a hung parliament, with no clear majority, but he added that other options were possible.
"Becoming prime minister after the elections isn't the only thing that Monti could do. He could also become president," the party official said.
That would allow Monti to avoid front-rank politics but still play the kind of behind-the-scenes role that current head of state Napolitano has played throughout much of the crisis.
But according to the SWG poll, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comedian Beppe Grillo would be the second largest force with 19 percent of the vote, while 49 percent of those surveyed were undecided or determined not to vote.
The odds against a PDL victory may help explain a relatively conciliatory attitude it has taken lately, despite a hostile tone toward the austere economic policies implemented by Monti with the blessing of Italy's European partners.
Speaking of Monti's remarks in New York, the PDL's Franco Frattini, a former foreign minister, said: "We have to take account of this important declaration and then it will be up to the voters to decide if a government can be formed with a sufficiently strong majority."
The party which dominated Italian governments over the past decade has been left hanging until Berlusconi decides whether or not he will lead it into the election. But with a heavy defeat in prospect, an apolitical prime minister seems to be increasingly attractive to the party's leaders.
(Additional reporting By Massimiliano Di Giorgio; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)