Berlusconi accuses Monti of plot with Italy's centre left

Catherine Hornby and Antonella Ciancio
Reuters Middle East

* Berlusconi says Monti is "spare wheel" of left-wing party

* Centrist leaders deny hidden accord with left

* Centre left urges Monti to clarify his position

ROME/MILAN, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Silvio Berlusconi on Saturday

condemned outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti's plan to lead a

centrist alliance in Italy's election in February, accusing him

of a plot to favour the left, but centrist leaders denied any

secret accord.

Monti, who replaced Berlusconi as prime minister last year

as Italy scrambled to avert a financial crisis, said on Friday

he wanted to unite a broad coalition of factions around a reform

agenda aimed at easing the country's economic woes.

Monti ended weeks of speculation when he confirmed his bid

for a second term, pitting him against the centre-left

Democratic Party (PD) and Berlusconi's centre-right People of

Freedom (PDL) party in a three-way contest.

Speaking to reporters at Milan Central railway station,

Berlusconi said Monti wanted to help the left secure power after

the Feb. 24-25 election so he could continue his austerity

agenda of tax hikes and spending cuts.

"This grouping has been formed to favour the left - also the

harmony with the left's programme they have celebrated heads in

this direction," he said, after earlier describing Monti as "the

spare wheel" of the PD in an interview with Vista TV.

The 76-year-old billionaire, who caught the train from Rome

with his new 27-year-old partner, Francesca Pascale, said he did

not believe Italian voters would "fall into the trap" which he

said was aimed at stealing votes from the centre right.

But Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of Italy's oldest and

largest centrist party, the UDC, which is cooperating with

Monti, strongly denied the accusations.

"Our initiative was not born with the support of the PD. It

has not been started with a predetermined alliance ... until

election day, what's important is aiming for the majority,"

Casini said at a news conference on Saturday.


Opinion polls suggest the PD, under Pier Luigi Bersani, will

win a comfortable lower house majority but may have to strike a

deal with centrist forces in the Senate, where the centre left

has struggled to gain control in past elections.

The PD, which has pledged to maintain Monti's broad reform

course while putting more emphasis on jobs and growth, has urged

the 69-year old technocrat to clarify the approach the centrist

forces will take towards the left.

"Will they present themselves as alternatives, as rivals, or

as open to an alliance?" Bersani asked on SkyTG24 television on

Friday, saying that the centre left would be open to discuss an

accord when Monti's position is clear.

Monti, a former European Commissioner, is a favourite with

international investors, the Catholic Church and the business

establishment, and has been widely credited with restoring

Italy's credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi years.

"For the first time an atmosphere is forming that points

towards the future for a Europe that needs Italy and a country

that wants to change deeply," centrist leader Casini said on


"From yesterday we are putting behind us the empty electoral

promises, populism, demagoguery, fake assurances, a phase of

responsibility is beginning," he said.

The PD has so far maintained a tone of polite respect for

Monti, in contrast to Berlusconi's attacks on his

"Germano-centric" austerity policies, which he blames for

deepening a severe recession and fuelling record unemployment.

The media tycoon also said on Saturday he was disappointed

that Monti had made a bid for a second term because the

economics professor had told him he would not use the exposure

gained as an unelected technocrat for future political motives.

Berlusconi added that if the centre right won the election

he would launch an investigation into Monti's ascent to power.

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