Leaders Italian politics in turmoil
Run, Mario, run
A rare chance of reform in Italy—but its current prime minister needs to come out fighting
For a moment, it was like the bad old days in Italy. After the main centre-right party, the People of Freedom (PdL), withdrew its support for the technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti, he dramatically announced his forthcoming resignation on December 8th. Worse, Silvio Berlusconi said that he would run as the PdL’s candidate for prime minister, for the sixth time, in the election now expected in February (though he may change his mind). No wonder the financial markets were spooked.
In the 13 months since the clownish Mr Berlusconi was ousted, Mr Monti has brought calm, some significant reform and a lot more dignity to his country. Yet Italy is still potentially one of the weakest links in the euro. It has the world’s fourth-biggest debt stock and is mired in the deepest recession among the euro zone’s biggest economies. Over the past decade its economy has barely grown. Although the budget deficit is under reasonable control, far more extensive reforms are needed to restore Italian competitiveness and to reignite growth. Mr Monti’s resignation will stymie further reform until after the election. The big question is, who will win?
There is a terrible option, an acceptable one and a potentially very good one. The awful would be the return of Mr Berlusconi. Fortunately, the PdL is languishing at little more than 15% in the opinion polls, and the elderly media tycoon will also be blamed by some voters for bringing down Mr Monti.
Far more likely is a win for the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) led by Pier Luigi Bersani, which has 30-35% in the polls, enough for his bloc to secure the winner’s premium of extra seats in the lower house. Mr Bersani was a reformer when he was last in government, between 2006 and 2008. He has promised broadly to stick to the combined policies of fiscal austerity and structural reforms laid out by Mr Monti. But he may find it hard to deliver, as he will depend for support on allies from the far left and on unions that are hostile to change.
Last week we said that Mr Bersani as prime minister with Mr Monti as president might be a reasonable outcome. Now, however, there is a chance of something better: Mr Monti could be elected as prime minister himself. His unexpected resignation is, by his technocratic standards, an aggressive political act. Italy’s business leaders are urging him to stand—by joining a centrist party, perhaps Pier Ferdinando Casini’s Union of Christian and Centre Democrats or a new group created by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the boss of Ferrari.
The risk is that a Monti candidacy could split the anti-Berlusconi ticket, letting il Cavaliere in by the back door. But there is also a huge opportunity. If a Monti-led party drew enough votes from left and right to win, he would have a real mandate for reform, especially when it came to opening up markets to competition and reshaping the state sector. Italy has never had such a government. With a pro-business centrist at the helm, some of Mr Berlusconi’s supporters might join up. If Mr Bersani’s PD were offered enough posts—he himself could perhaps become deputy prime minister and thus Mr Monti’s presumed successor—he might also join in.
Stay in Rome, not St Moritz
It might not work. Mr Monti is not a natural politician, never having run for elective office. He might not win. Previously he has seemed more drawn to the Italian presidency (or the European Union’s). If he does not feel up to the job, he should duck out now. But if he cares about his country, this is the time to come out fighting—and persuade other centrists to join him. Italians are fed up with the mess their country is in. This is a rare opportunity to change things.