Sober man Monti promises hard truths for Italy

Cerebral economics professor Mario Monti may not get pulses racing but supporters at a rally on Friday said his blend of bitter economic medicine and European credentials are just what Italy needs.

The outgoing prime minister told the crowd that the time for old-style politics was over and that he was the best man to lead Italy at a time of daunting economic challenges, as a general election looms next week.

"Maybe I can't tell you I know how to realise a dream but I know how you can overcome a nightmare by gritting your teeth," the 69-year-old former Eurocrat told some 1,000 fans assembled in a concert hall on the outskirts of Rome.

"Italian citizens have a great capacity to understand if you just tell them the truth," he said, as supporters waved flags with the name of his movement "Civic Choice" and sported badges reading: "With Monti for Italy".

Monti smiled and waved to his supporters but the long-time academic spoke in the slightly stilted style that has made him the butt of jokes by a stand-up comedian who plays the prime minister as a part-robot, part-alien.

Monti, a regular church-goer, also referenced the impending resignation of Pope Benedict XVI saying: "It seems that on both banks of the Tiber River an era is changing and maybe with that change we lack a reference point."

The Vatican is across the river from the seat of political power in Rome.

Among the crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly supporters, many said they were glad to have a sober-minded prime minister in power after the sex scandals of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, who stepped down in November 2011.

"All the scandals we've had in the past had discouraged me from voting, I was disillusioned with politics," said 72-year-old pensioner Carlo Missinato.

"But in Mario Monti I see someone who is credible and deserves respect. And I think he really shares the Christian values I believe in," Missinato said.

Cristina Cannelli, a civil servant at Rome city hall, said: "I think we should continue supporting him because we've seen what happened in Greece.

"I think Italy hasn't suffered as much because the government intervened".

A former top European commissioner, Monti was installed by parliament to replace Berlusconi as leader of a technocratic government charged with restoring public finances and saving the country from impending bankruptcy.

Berlusconi's People of Freedom party withdrew its support for him a year later and Monti announced on December 23 that he would enter the political fray as head of an eclectic group of centrist politicians and civil society figures.

Most recent polls put him in fourth place behind centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, three-time prime minister Berlusconi and former comedian Beppe Grillo who has captured rumbling discontent with a populist campaign.

Monti is scoring between 12.6 percent and 16 percent in the polls.

But political observers say Bersani may fail to win a majority in both houses of parliament, which could lead to a coalition with Monti that might in turn mean he will return to government once more in a senior role.

Monti has tried to shake off a somewhat staid image in recent weeks, shedding his fogeyish loden coat, drinking a beer on a television talk show and even adopting a dog he has named "Empathy" -- or "Empy" for short.

Valerio Loscascio, a 23-year-old volunteer for Monti's campaign, said he did not agree with all of the prime minister's policies and said the austerity measures implemented in recent months had been too harsh for many people.

But he said he had been won over by Monti's impressive personal qualities.

"I've admired him during his months in government because I think he is someone worthy and totally devoted to Italy," he said. "For example, he refused to receive a salary. No one before him had ever done that."