By Gavin Jones
ROME (Reuters) - Outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has many unquestioned qualities but it is starting to seem that bold political decision-making may not be one of them.
After keeping his supporters waiting for weeks to know whether he would lead them in Italy's upcoming election, Monti held an eagerly awaited news conference on Sunday - and announced that they would have to wait a little longer.
For most of his 13 months in office Monti repeated that he would withdraw from politics when his term ended.
In September he changed tack and said he would be willing to serve a second term but only if the election produced no clear winner, and then in the last few weeks he let it be known that he was considering actually running in the election.
Monti's indecision over whether to stand or not dominated Italian media coverage in just the same way that similar changes of position by his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi had done a couple of months earlier.
The issue dominated the two-hour news conference but by the end of it, journalists were still scratching their heads over what the former European commissioner had actually decided.
"I have to say that I still don't understand anything," Lucia Annunziata, one of Italy's most experienced journalists told Monti in a television interview later in the day.
Roberto Maroni, the leader of the pro-devolution Northern League party, tweeted his derision.
"I'm not running, but maybe I am ... Monti has learned from the most false Christian Democrats of the first Republic," he said, referring to the party that ruled Italy for 60 years after World War Two and was famed for its opaque political intrigues.
The picture is now somewhat clearer and can be summed up as follows: Monti will present a list of policy priorities and wait to see if a credible centrist alliance emerges that adopts the plan as its own and has a chance of doing well in the election.
If this happens, he will agree to stand at the election as the alliance's candidate for prime minister.
While this strategy may seem a cautious one, the risk for Monti is that by promoting a centrist alliance he has sacrificed his aura as a non-partisan technocrat. After being put on a pedestal for most of his premiership, he will now be fiercely attacked in the election campaign by left and right alike.
It may also all be for nothing, as polls show the centrist parties that back Monti currently command no more than about 10 percent of the vote.
Monti said he hoped new forces from "civil society" emerge to join forces with them and create a major bloc, yet he admitted this was a gamble with "many risks and a high probability of failure".
If the snowball effect does not materialize, it can be assumed that Monti will simply decline to offer his name to any party, and will be no more than an onlooker at the election.
A taste of what he is in for in his new role as politician rather than technocrat was already clear on Sunday from potential foes at the election. Berlusconi said a new Monti government would be a "nightmare".
Another risk for Monti is that what follows may partly overshadow the notable achievements of what has gone before.
The 69-year-old former economics professor replaced the scandal-plagued Berlusconi last year as sky rocketing borrowing costs threatened to plunge Italy into a Greek-style debt crisis.
When Berlusconi pulled his backing for Monti's technocrat government on December 6, the gap between Italy's benchmark bonds and safer German Bunds stood below 3.2 percentage points, little more than half the level when Monti took over.
With his economist's training and measured, sober manner Monti was the perfect antidote to the discredited Berlusconi.
His rapport with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly crucial as for the first time in years Italy's view began to be taken seriously in European decision-making.
In a heady first few months that saw him named European of the year in the French parliament and feted by the international media he acted decisively to convince investors that Italy could bring its finances under control.
Capitalizing on record approval ratings he rushed through 20 billion euros ($25.86 billion) of deficit cuts including a widely praised pension reform to raise the retirement age.
He lost some of that shine, at least domestically, as the months went on and the recession deepened, aggravated by a raft of tax hikes. Subsequent reforms to deregulate services and the labor markets got bogged down and diluted by parliamentary and union opposition.
Economists are divided over the quality of Monti's attempts to free up Italy's economy but he has remained the darling of financial markets and he undoubtedly began to address deep-rooted problems that festered unattended for years.
He said this week that the structural reforms needed to make Italy competitive had only just begun. Investors will be pleased to see that there is still a chance that after February's election Monti till still be in charge to tackle them. (Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Stephen Powell)