By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italy's main center-left party, leading polls for next year's election, criticized calls for Prime Minister Mario Monti to run for a second term, a move one of the party's leading figures said would be "morally questionable".
The Democratic Party (PD) has supported Monti's technocrat government in parliament. But, while it has pledged to continue his fiscal discipline and wants him to stay on in some role after the election, it says he should stay out of the campaign, which polls suggest he would lose anyway.
"It would be illogical and in a certain sense morally questionable if the professor were to enter the race against the main political force which supported him in his reform efforts," Massimo D'Alema, a former prime minister and an influential center-left elder statesman told Friday's daily Corriere della Sera. "I have great esteem for him and I hope he doesn't."
center-right candidate Silvio Berlusconi has offered to stand aside to allow a Monti candidacy.
European politicians from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Francois Hollande also heaped praise on Monti and at a meeting of European center-right parties on Thursday, he was urged to run in the election.
Monti avoided public comments on his political future, telling a news conference in Brussels it would not be "either possible or appropriate" for him to speak on the matter. But in an interview with an online religious magazine, Monti said Italians had earned respect for their economic sacrifices.
"Italy did not derail and it will succeed", Monti told Francescan magazine sanfrancesco.org.
Industry Minister Corrado Passera also declined to comment on whether Monti would be a candidate in the vote, expected by February, "at least for now".
"I'm confident that our work will continue under a new government and a new parliament," Passera said at an Italy-American conference in New York. He added that he thought the worst was over for the euro zone's third-biggest economy and that it would improve in the second half of 2013.
Monti's austerity measures have helped reduce borrowing costs since he took over in a financial crisis last year. Italy's public debt nonetheless rose above 2 trillion euros ($2.62 trillion) for the first time in October, the Bank of Italy reported on Friday.
PD party leader Pier Luigi Bersani said on Thursday he would call on Monti to perform some kind of role immediately after the election. But he has said it would be better for the respected former economics professor to stay out of the campaign.
Opinion polls suggest Monti would be defeated if he ran, and PD officials say that would make it harder for him to replace President Giorgio Napolitano, who must step down by April.
"He would have been a political competitor not 10 years earlier, or something like that, but last week," Stefano Fassina, the main PD spokesman on economic affairs told Reuters.
Napolitano, who named Monti to replace the discredited Berlusconi a year ago, said last month that Monti's special lifetime seat in the Senate would not allow him to make an election bid.
Monti also would be cautious about associating with the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, whose position switches have caused frustration and alarm across Europe and in his own party.
Berlusconi reiterated criticisms of Monti's austerity programs on Friday and said he would be obliged to lead the center-right if Monti did not accept the role.
"I have had to return because of this," he told his own Italia Uno television station. "We're convinced that moderates will never allow the left to win with its policies of more spending and more taxes especially on the middle class."
A potential Monti election vehicle, a centrist group recently set up by Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, is polling under three percent in most surveys.
An average of two weeks' opinion polls by website termometropolitico.it gave the PD 32.7 percent, ahead of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement on 16.8 percent and Berlusconi's People of Freedom party (PDL) on 15 percent.
A potential centrist coalition that could back a Monti candidacy polled 9.2 percent.
($1 = 0.7628 euros)
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Paul Ingrassia and Nicola Scevola in New York, Antonella Ciancio in Milan; Writing By James Mackenzie; Editing by Barry Moody and Michael Roddy)