(File image) Mario Monti

Rome -

Prime Minister Mario Monti's government hung by a thread on Friday as Silvio Berlusconi prepared to return to the fray, with his supporters arguing that Italy was economically now far worse off than before.

“We believe the experience of the Monti government is over,” Angelino Alfano, leader of Berlusconi's People of Freedom (PDL) party, told parliament.

But he added that the PDL wanted an “orderly conclusion” to the legislature, meaning that the party will not try to bring down the government.

PDL lawmakers on Thursday abstained from confidence votes in the government in protest at Monti's policies, but stopped short of bringing down the executive they have supported until now.

“We backed the government thinking that things would get better, but they got worse,” Alfano said.

“Public debt has risen, there is no development strategy, GDP has gone down, industrial production has plunged, unemployment has gone up, taxes have gone up, the construction sector and the property market have collapsed,” he said.

Alfano on Thursday said Berlusconi would run for office again although the 76-year-old three-time prime minister himself has made no announcement.

It would be his sixth bid to become prime minister in two decades of political life for the billionaire media tycoon.

“I am being assailed by requests to return to the field as soon as possible,” Berlusconi said in a statement Wednesday after meeting party leaders.

“Italy today is on the edge of a cliff. I cannot allow this,” he said, adding: “The situation now is far worse than when I left office last year.”

Renewed political tensions in Italy spooked the financial markets but commentators said a major crisis was unlikely since Monti's government was already coming to an end.

“Berlusconi has withdrawn his confidence in the government but there is no overt crisis,” said Stefano Folli, a columnist for the Il Sole 24 Ore business daily.

“Monti is still in charge,” Folli told AFP.

“The government in any case is coming to the end of its mandate and they only have to approve the budget, which will have to be done by Christmas. All the parties have agreed to do it,” he said.

President Giorgio Napolitano has also sought to reassure the public, saying these were only “pre-election tensions” ahead of a general election expected to be held in March or April next year.

In an editorial for the Corriere della Sera daily entitled “The World Is Watching Us”, columnist Massimo Franco said a fall of the government “would expose the country again to speculative financial attacks and would annul everything positive that has been achieved” by Monti.

“There is a risk of putting Italy's new-found credibility in jeopardy,” he said.

The yields between benchmark Italian and German 10-year sovereign bonds meanwhile widened to 330 points on Friday from around 300 points on Monday.

A poll by the SWG Institute on Friday gave Berlusconi's PDL just 13.8 percent of the vote Ä compared to the 38 percent it won in the last general election in 2008.

“A desperate right returns to the only pagan rite it knows: the eternal return of the Cavaliere,” said Massimo Giannini from La Repubblica daily, referring to Berlusconi's oft-used moniker.

Giannini said Berlusconi will wage “a campaign against taxes... and against Europe” to try and “recuperate at least a part of his electorate which has fled because of too many broken promises.”

Folli said: “Berlusconi has no chance of returning as head of the government. He is doing all this to retain a political role in order to defend himself in his trials and to save his economic interests.” - Sapa-AFP