By Steve Scherer
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti sought to reaffirm the independence of his technocratic government on Friday after poor results in local elections prompted the parties that back him in parliament to demand more control over policy.
Since the May 6-7 vote, the right-left blocs that support Monti have said they will veto any measures he tries to pass that they do not agree with, criticizing him for an excess of austerity.
"You will not ever see us do something that is not in the interest of the country because the parties ask us to," Monti told reporters at a news conference held to announce the use of 2.3 billion euros ($2.98 billion) in European Union funds for the country's underdeveloped southern regions.
Monti heads an unelected government of technocrats that took over in November after a discredited Silvio Berlusconi stepped down amid skyrocketing bond yields and a looming debt crisis.
After imposing severe austerity measures to save Italy from a Greek-style default, Monti said now was the time for a new "phase" focused on "equity and growth".
Referring to the allocation of funds for welfare and growth measures, Monti said, "the government took these decisions not because the parties asked for them, but because Italians asked for them."
While the local vote had no direct bearing on Monti's government, it was the first electoral test since the premier took power and it showed Italians rebelling against the 24 billion euros in new taxes the government imposed for this year.
Berlusconi's People of Liberty (PDL) party took the biggest hit, losing control of dozens of city governments, while Monti's other main supporter, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), gave up votes to an anti-euro party led by a comedian.
Run-off ballots in the elections for the governments of more than 900 towns and cities will be held on May 20-21.
Austerity "can be applied only to an economy that is growing, but it is suicide for one that's already in recession," Berlusconi said on Friday in Milan, repeating that his party would limit support to government measures "that convince us".
PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani said on Thursday Italy should consider pushing back its budget goals in order to try to help stimulate growth.
Both the PD and PDL, despite some debate among the rank and file, have assured their support of the government until the end of the legislature next year, but prospects look dim for Monti to make the far-reaching reforms economists say the country needs.
Monti has been careful in recent days to show that he, and not just the parties, is attentive to the concerns of average Italians who are feeling the bite of the austerity measures and a severe recession.
After the local elections his approval rating plunged six percentage points in a week to 38 percent, an SWG poll published on Friday showed. That compares with a high of 71 percent in November, just after he took office.
Berlusconi's PDL lost 5 percentage points in the same week, falling to 19.9 percent, and the PD fell 2 points to 24.9 percent.
The Five-Star Movement led by comic Beppe Grillo would be Italy's third-biggest party if there were a vote today, according to the poll, gathering 11.5 percent of nationwide ballots, up from 7.6 percent a week earlier.
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