Italy's technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti gave the first clear indication on Thursday that he would be willing to head the government again if there is no outright winner in elections next year, as opinion polls now suggest.
Monti has headed an unelected government 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 might succeed the Monti administration as Italy's political parties - discredited by their mismanagement of the economy and a long series of corruption scandals - are in disarray seven months before the election.
"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 at 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."
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 parties are already campaigning against the tax increases and pension cuts he has made.
The yield on Italian benchmark bonds fell after Monti made the remarks, with the spread against safer Germany bunds narrowing to around 3.68 percentage points from around 3.76 points earlier in the day.
Nicholas Spiro, head of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said Monti's stance would be "music to the ears of investors and is likely to underpin the recent improvement in Italy's perceived creditworthiness".
At an auction earlier on Thursday Italian 10-year bond yields fell to 5.2 percent from 5.8 percent at the previous sale, while yields on 5-year borrowing declined to 4.1 percent, the lowest since May 2011.
Political reaction among opposition groups in parliament was less favourable, with several members saying Monti should be a candidate in the election if he wanted to carry on as premier.
"He should run for office like in a normal democracy and put an end to short cuts that mean he only represents himself and his friends," said Felice Belisario of the opposition People of Values party.
The 69-year-old Monti repeated that he would not stand in the national vote because it would destabilise 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.
If the current election system is used, polls suggest the centre-left 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 that now backs Monti in parliament, or a whole new vote.
Monti, a former economist and European commissioner, continues to be Italy's most popular politician. His approval rating was 42 percent in mid-September, compared with 26 percent for PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani, an opinion poll showed last week.
Berlusconi, who leads the largest centre-right party, had an approval 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 and David Stamp)