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Monti forms electoral coalition

Italian premier Mario Monti announced he is heading a new campaign coalition made of up centrists, business leaders and pro-Vatican forces who back his "ethical" vision of politics, aiming for a second mandate in office if his fledging reform movement wins big in parliamentary elections.

After a four-hour huddle with his supporters, Mr Monti ended weeks of speculation at home and abroad about whether the internationally respected economist, who was appointed to head a non-elected government a year ago, would seek a new term, this time given to him by the voters.

He told a hastily convened news conference that the February 24-25 ballot list would carry the banner Monti Agenda for Italy or a similar slogan, even if the ballot would not list him per se as a candidate.

"A new political formation is born," declared Mr Monti, who, as a senator-for-life does not have to run for a parliamentary seat.

"Italy must have an evolution in its politics," he said, Instead of the "traditional axis that consists of right and left" Mr Monti contended that the real axis Italy needs is one "directed at Europe and at reforms to transform our country".

Mr Monti was appointed premier 13 months ago after his scandal-plagued predecessor Silvio Berlusconi failed to stop Italy from sliding deeper into the eurozone debt crisis.

He quit earlier this month after Mr Berlusconi pulled his party's support from Mr Monti's government, but is now continuing in a caretaker role until the next elections.

For weeks now there has been speculation about whether Mr Monti would run for the job in February, but he has been unwilling to officially campaign as a candidate.

But he could take on the premiership if asked to by whatever party or coalition wins - including the grouping he announced.

"I will watch over the creation of (parliamentary) candidate lists, and for now, I agree to carry out the role of coalition head, and I am working for the success of this operation," the 69-year-old said.

Mr Monti along with his government of technocrats have taken credit for shoring up Italy's shaky finances by pushing through a tough austerity agenda of pension reform, new taxes and spending cuts.

And Mr Monti said he wants to "prolong and intensify the pace and extend the objectives of" his government.

Critics, however, say his reforms have stymied job creation and left Italy mired in recession.

His range of supporters is impressive. They include the president of Ferrari's Formula One racing team as well as figures in the highest Vatican echelons.

Pope Benedict XVI on Christmas Day issued a call for noble values in politics that was read as a virtual endorsement for another Monti term.

But it remains to be seen if Mr Monti's high-minded reformist alliance will garner enough backing to allow him to call the shots after the elections.

Recent polls have shown that such a grouping, with Mr Monti at the helm, would garner at most about 15% of the vote.

Opinion surveys show that the leading party, with about 30%, is the Democratic Left led by Pier Luigi Bersani, who was Mr Monti's biggest backer in Parliament, including supporting him on pension reforms that sorely tested the left's traditional support from labour.

Mr Berlusconi, meanwhile, has not said if he is running or not for a fourth term as premier. He faces legal and sexual scandals, yet still commands significant support.

After Mr Monti's news conference, Mr Bersani challenged the premier to clarify the new coalition's relationship with his party, the "first party. Do they see us as alternatives, competitors or are they open to an alliance?" Mr Bersani said in a TV interview.

Reporters asked Mr Monti if he thought he could return to the premier's office if the election results show his coalition ends up second. "Let's wait and see," was his reply.

Mr Monti said that, thanks to his stewardship, "the financial emergency is over" in Italy but acknowledged that youth unemployment and lack of economic growth still plague the country.

He said voters would have the chance in February to "legitimise" his economic and moral reform platform.

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