Italy's caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti says he will contest February elections at the head of a centrist coalition, driving a wedge between centre-left and centre-right parties.
'I agree to assume the role of head of the coalition, and I will commit myself to guaranteeing the success of this operation,' Monti said after meeting for four hours with representatives of centrist groups and civic organisations.
Monti, 69, announced a week ago he would step down after 13 months at the head of an unelected team of technocrats that was appointed to steer Italy out of a financial crisis that could have had dire consequences for the entire 17-nation eurozone.
Technically, as an Italian senator for life, the former European commissioner cannot himself run for office, but is in a position to be renamed prime minister if a party or coalition he supports wins the vote on February 24-25.
Monti is seen as a way of preventing scandal-tainted former premier Silvio Berlusconi from returning to power and undoing hard-won reforms.
In a Senate hall - and not at the seat of government - Monti said on Friday he was 'not creating a new party' but an alliance to have various groups that already back his program 'To Change Italy, To Reform Europe' work together.
Ahead of the February election, groups backing Monti in the Senate would form a single list named 'Monti Agenda for Italy', he said.
In the lower-house Chamber of Deputies several lists will have to group together.
Monti said he would check electoral lists closely to exclude would-be candidates who have had issues with the courts.
The 'Monti Agenda' proposes to cut public funds for political parties and parliamentary groups, and also includes measures to make more room for women and environmental issues.
Monti could bar the route for Berlusconi, who is running for the premiership for the sixth time in 18 years, but who is now isolated on the right side of the political spectrum with support from anti-tax and anti-euro factions.
Analysts had expected Pier Luigi Bersani of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) to be named prime minister, and to then appoint Monti as a 'super economy minister'.
Berlusconi, who is appealing an October conviction for tax fraud and is currently on trial for having sex with an underage prostitute, has made proposals including the abolition of a new property tax that Monti has called 'very dangerous and illusory'.
A Monti-backed reform coalition is likely to steal votes from both Bersani and Berlusconi, who has virulently lambasted Monti's pro-Europe austerity policies.
Bersani on Friday called on Monti to 'clarify whether he is ready for an alliance with the PD which will be Italy's biggest party or whether he sees himself as its adversary'.
The secretary of Berlusconi's PDL party, Angelino Alfano, meanwhile said 'Senator Monti's press conference clearly shows an attempt to hide plans for an alliance with the left behind a moderate candidacy'.
Monti has been endorsed by European leaders, the markets and the Roman Catholic Church.
But while Monti's bold reforms have received wide praise from investors and rescued Italy from the brink of bankruptcy, they are increasingly unpopular among Italians who have been on the receiving end.
Monti's approval rating has plunged from more than 60 per cent as he took office to around 30 per cent in recent weeks.
And he has come under fire for appearing to make no effort to reach out to voters.
Antonio Noto of the IPR Marketing polling institute said an alliance headed by Monti could garner up to 24 per cent of the vote, making it the second biggest after the centre-left Democrats with just over 30 per cent.
Italy's economy is still stuck in a recession, unemployment is at record highs and consumption has fallen this year at its fastest rate since World War II.
Monti was installed by parliament at the head of an unelected, technocratic government when Berlusconi was forced to step down last year in a storm of sex scandals, market panic and infighting within his own party.