By Nicola Scevola
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Italy's technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti gave the first clear indication on Thursday that he would be willing to head the government again if there is no outright winner in elections next year, as opinion polls now suggest.
Monti has headed an unelected government since former premier Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in November, imposing a painful program of austerity reforms to keep the country from a Greek-style debt debacle.
His comments appeared to be aimed at reassuring financial markets, which have been fretting over what government might succeed the Monti administration.
"I hope there will be a clear result with a clear possibility for whatever majority to be formed and for a government led by a political leader," Monti said during a briefing at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"Should there be circumstances in which they were to believe that I could serve helpfully after that period of elections, I will be there, I will consider, I cannot preclude anything."
Italy's political parties - discredited after their mismanagement of the economy and a long series of corruption scandals - are in disarray seven months before the election.
Business leaders and European officials have said they would like to see Monti continue leading Italy so that the reform process is not reversed, but significant elements in Italy's main parties are already campaigning against the tax increases and pension cuts he has made.
Berlusconi, who has hinted he may run for office but has yet to announce a decision, on Thursday reiterated his criticism of the austerity measures introduced by Monti and other governments around Europe.
"These measures are bringing economies to collapse. They introduce the economy of every country into a recessionary spiral with no end in sight," he said at a news conference, adding that the euro was a "big swindle".
However what his real intentions may be and whether he will really run for election remain unclear, given his past record of provocative statements which are subsequently retracted or watered down.
Franco Frattini, who served as foreign minister in Berlusconi's most recent government, told Reuters on Thursday that "the game is still wide open" in terms of who could stand in the next elections and who could lead the next government.
The yield on Italian benchmark bonds fell after Monti's remarks, with the spread against safer Germany bunds narrowing to around 3.66 percentage points from around 3.76 points earlier in the day.
Nicholas Spiro, head of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said Monti's stance would be "music to the ears of investors and is likely to underpin the recent improvement in Italy's perceived creditworthiness".
At an auction earlier on Thursday Italian 10-year bond yields fell to 5.2 percent from 5.8 percent at the previous sale, while yields on 5-year borrowing declined to 4.1 percent, the lowest since May 2011.
Political reaction among opposition groups in parliament was less favorable, with several members saying Monti should be a candidate in the election if he wanted to carry on as premier.
"He should run for office like in a normal democracy and put an end to short cuts that mean he only represents himself and his friends," said Felice Belisario of the opposition People of Values party.
However, Frattini, a leading moderate in the centre-right and a strong supporter of Monti, welcomed the announcement.
"This is a very important piece of news," he said. "Having this potential availability of Monti, with the great reputation he has, is something we definitely have to take into account."
The 69-year-old Monti repeated that he would not stand in the national vote because it would destabilize the right-left coalition that now supports him. But Monti does not need to be elected to qualify to become prime minister because he was appointed a senator for life last year.
It is still not clear who the candidates for the two biggest parties will be, and even the voting law may be changed before April, the deadline for the election.
If the current electoral system is used, polls suggest the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and its allies would win the lower house, but in the upper house, or Senate, the result would be unclear. That would require another right-left alliance like the one that now backs Monti in parliament, or a whole new vote.
Monti, a former economist and European commissioner, continues to be Italy's most popular politician. His approval rating was 42 percent in mid-September, compared with 26 percent for PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, an opinion poll showed last week.
Berlusconi, who leads the largest centre-right party, had an approval rating of 18 percent, and Beppe Grillo, the comedian who heads the new Five-Star Movement, was on 25 percent.
During the same talk, Monti said that Greece's exit from the euro zone would cause "damage to the whole system" and that he does not think it will happen.
(Reporting by Gavin Jones, Catherine Hornby and James Mackenzie; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp)