By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Italian caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Sunday he would be ready to run for a second term in next year's election if he was asked to do so by political forces that adopted his reform agenda.
The former European commissioner, appointed to lead an unelected government to save Italy from financial crisis a year ago, resigned on Friday but has faced growing calls to seek a second term at the election on February 24-25.
Speaking at a year-end news conference, Monti stressed he was not now entering any political movement and that he was more concerned about his policy prescriptions being followed than personalities standing in the election.
Nonetheless, he said that if a political force or coalition offered a credible program that he supported, "I would be ready to offer my encouragement, advice and if necessary leadership."
Asked if that meant he was ready to stand as prime minister again he said: "If a credible political force asked me to run as prime minister for them I would consider it."
Both Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom (PDL) party and Pier Luigi Bersani's centre-left Democratic Party (PD) have urged him not to stand in the election. The PD holds a substantial lead in opinion polls.
However, Monti rejected suggestions that he was motivated by personal ambition to win political power.
"If I accept, it's to try to change the moral culture of the country. It's obvious it's not for my personal convenience," he said.
Monti has been strongly urged to stand by centrist groups ranging from disaffected former Berlusconi allies to the small UDC party, which is close to the Catholic church.
Monti said he hoped the next government would have an ample parliamentary majority and believed the traditional left-right divide was no longer adequate to tackle the problems facing Italy.
If he does enter the race, he will face strong opposition from Berlusconi, whom he criticized sharply during the course of his remarks, saying he had been "bewildered" by the 76 year-old billionaire media tycoon's frequent changes of position.
Outlining a broad policy platform to complete the reform agenda his technocrat administration began when it took office more than a year ago, Monti said the next government must not make easy election promises or backtrack on reforms.
"We have to avoid illusory and extremely dangerous steps backwards," Monti said.
While numerous European leaders and Italy's business elite have called for his economic agenda to continue, ordinary Italians, weary of tax hikes and spending cuts imposed to cut a huge public debt, are less enthusiastic.
A centrist group headed by him would probably come a distant third or even fourth in the election and one survey published last week showed 61 percent of Italians felt he should not stand.
During his 13 months in office the former economics professor repaired Italy's international standing after it plunged under the discredited Berlusconi, and pushed through reforms of the pension system, labor market and parts of the service sector.
However, many analysts said his reform efforts were too timid to significantly improve the outlook of a chronically sluggish economy, and Monti himself said that Italy was "only at the beginning of the structural reforms" required.
Italy, the euro zone's third-largest economy, has been in recession since the middle of last year, consumer spending is falling at its fastest rate since World War Two and unemployment has risen to a record high above 11 percent.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, editing by Silvia Aloisi; editing by Barry Moody)