By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday he may not stand in elections next spring and suggested that technocrat premier Mario Monti could stay on as head of a centre-right government.
Berlusconi's move, which revealed his fears that the centre-left will win the vote, indicated he had abandoned hope of winning enough support to mount a credible campaign as leader of the centre-right, which is trailing heavily in opinion polls.
It was greeted with skepticism by many politicians and analysts, who saw it as a tactical move that underlined the weakness of Berlusconi's badly divided camp and said little about the likelihood of Monti returning after the election.
Monti himself has repeatedly said he will not stand for election but would be willing to stay on for the sake of the country if there was political deadlock after the polls, which are due by April.
Berlusconi said he wanted to unite a broad coalition capable of defeating the centre-left, and was prepared to stand down to gain the support of smaller centrist parties that have been reluctant to join forces with his People of Freedom (PDL) party.
"Silvio Berlusconi has always said and continues to say that he is ready to stand aside to allow all moderates to unite in a single force that can face the left together," he told his own Canale 5 television network.
"I have always wanted the good of the country I love, I have never had any personal ambition," he said.
He declined to identify a potential leader if he did step aside, but said Monti could lead a centre-right government.
"Absolutely, I would not rule out it being Mario Monti. Ever since I've known him, he has always been in the liberal camp, so it could easily be Mario Monti," he said.
Monti is strongly supported by Italy's business establishment and has enjoyed wide international backing for his efforts to rein in Italy's towering public debt and reform its stagnant economy.
But how far Berlusconi's announcement increased the chances of a second Monti term remained very unclear, with opinion polls showing little public appetite for an encore by the former European commissioner.
The centre-left backs Monti in parliament but has consistently said the next government should be formed by a democratically elected coalition. It has expressed strong objections to a repeat of Monti's technocrat administration.
The exceptionally confused political situation in Italy, the euro zone's third largest economy, has been a source of concern on financial markets, which are worried that a weak government could emerge from the election and renege on Monti's reforms.
Berlusconi, forced to step down last year in the middle of a mounting financial crisis, has hinted several times that he plans a return to the political front line but has never clearly confirmed his intentions.
The PDL is in disarray with deep splits between diehard Berlusconi loyalists and others including centrist supporters of the Monti government who want to create a conventional European centre-right force.
The secretary of Berlusconi's PDL, Angelino Alfano, on Monday raised the prospect of Berlusconi stepping aside and urged centrist UDC party leader Pier Ferdinando Casini to join forces in a broad alliance to defeat the left.
"DIVISIONS STILL CURRENT"
However Casini said Berlusconi's repeated record of "turnarounds" meant that he would be very cautious in responding to the invitation. Gianfranco Fini, a former Berlusconi ally who broke away from the PDL, also expressed strong doubts.
"The divisions that have lacerated the centre-right are the product of strong political disagreements, many of them still current," he said in a statement. "They can't be removed by people stepping down, even if that's necessary."
The smaller centrist parties have long been unwilling to accept joining a coalition led by Berlusconi, who has been Italy's dominant political figure for the past two decades but is plagued by political and personal scandals.
Uncertainty over what system will be used in next year's vote, which has been the subject of months of haggling between the parties, has increased the opaque political outlook.
According to an opinion poll published on Friday by the SWG polling institute, the centre-left parties combined have the support of 41.5 percent of the electorate, against just under 36 percent for the combined centre and centre-right parties.
The centre-right and centre-left are unlikely to form two solid blocs and the actual shape of the coalitions that will fight the election remains unknown. But the PDL itself had no more than 15 percent support against 25 percent for the Democratic Party (PD), the biggest centre-left group.
In the survey, 42 percent of respondents said they trusted Monti but 52 percent did not want to see him continue in office after the election. Centre-right voters were particularly opposed, with 58 percent against a second term.
Italy's centre-left will hold a primary vote in November to pick its election leader.
The main candidates are PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence, and Nichi Vendola, leader of the Left, Ecology and Freedom party.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Barry Moody and Kevin Liffey)
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