Italy's technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti gave the first clear indication on Thursday that he would be willing to head the government again after next year's election if, as polls now suggest, there were no clear winner.
Monti has headed an unelected government of technocrats since former premier Silvio Berlusconi stepped down in November, imposing austerity reforms to keep the country from a Greek-style debt debacle.
Financial markets have been fretting over what government may succeed Monti's administration with Italy's parties - discredited for their mismanagement of the economy and a long series of corruption scandals - in disarray seven months away from an election.
Business leaders and European officials have said they would like to see Monti continue leading Italy so that the reform process is not turned back, but most of Italy's political parties are already campaigning against the tax hikes and pension cuts he has made.
"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 in 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."
The 69-year-old Monti repeated that he would not stand in the national vote because it would destablise 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.
But if the current election system is used, polls suggest that the 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 Monti now heads, or a whole new vote.
Monti, a former economist and European commissioner, continues to be Italy's most popular politician. His appeal rating was 42 percent in mid-September, compared with 26 percent for Pier Luigi Bersani, current leader of the PD, an opinion poll showed last week.
Berlusconi, who leads the largest centre-right party, had an appeal rating of 18 percent, and Beppe Grillo, the comedian who heads the new Five-Star Movement, had a 25 percent rating.
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; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Giles Elgood)