By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave a strong hint on Wednesday that he would stand in next year's election, declaring he would not allow Italy to spiral into recession and saying he had been "besieged by requests" to run.
Though Berlusconi has repeatedly changed his mind in the last few months on whether he will stand in the election expected in about four months time, his criticism of Monti's handling of the economy was particularly harsh and came at a critical moment in the run-up to the parliamentary polls.
"The situation today is much worse than it was a year ago when I left the government out of a sense of responsibility and a love for my country," Berlusconi said in a statement issued after a long meeting with his People of Liberty (PDL) party leaders earlier in the day.
"I cannot let my country fall into a recessive spiral without end. It's not possible to go on like this," Berlusconi said after explaining that he had been "besieged by requests from (his) party to announce at the soonest my re-entry into politics to guide the PDL."
Berlusconi resigned in 2011 due to a sex-scandal involving an underage prostitute as Italy was on the precipice of a Greek-style debt crisis. President Giorgio Napolitano asked the former European commissioner Monti to form a government of technocrats with the support of a right-left coalition that includes the PDL.
Monti imposed austerity measures to bring borrowing costs under control. But the higher taxes have weighed on consumer spending and deepened a recession that began in the second half of last year.
"Today Italy is on the edge of an abyss: the economy is exhausted, a million more are unemployed, purchasing power collapsed, tax pressure is rising to intolerable levels," Berlusconi said.
He went on to say households are "anguished" about having to pay a housing levy Monti introduced to help cut the deficit.
Though the euro zone's third-biggest economy is still struggling, Monti has calmed the financial markets and the spread between Italy and German benchmark bonds this week fell to nearly half the level it was when he took over.
Monti, who is a life-appointed Senator, says he will not stand in next year's vote, but is willing to step in afterward if the result is not clear.
The tone of Berlusconi's statement echoed comments made and broadcast on his Mediaset television network when he entered politics in 1994, saying he would "take the field" to save the country from communism.
In recent months, Berlusconi's hesitation to say whether or not he would run in parliamentary elections has left the centre-right in disarray just as its centre-left rivals picked their candidate, Democratic Party (PD) leader Pier Luigi Bersani, in a primary vote on Sunday.
Bersani met Monti for the first time as a candidate earlier on Wednesday, and the prime minister praised the primary vote, ANSA news agency reported citing government sources. The 76-year-old Berlusconi's delay to declare his intentions has blocked primaries on the centre-right.
Publicity around the PD primaries helped lift it to its highest approval rating in nearly two years, a poll showed on Tuesday.
The poll by the EMG research group showed the PD would win more than 34.6 percent of the vote if national elections were held this week, compared with 15.2 percent for the PDL.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Jon Hemming)
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