Will Monti run for prime minister?
How to prevent Silvio Berlusconi from returning to power
With his restrained smile, laconic manner and dry humour, Mario Monti, Italy’s prime minister, makes a good sphinx. And that is the role he will have to play until the budget for 2013 is approved by parliament, probably on December 21st. Only then will he be able to cast aside the neutrality he must maintain as head of a technocratic government and announce whether he plans to stand in the general election now expected in February.
The early vote became inevitable on December 8th when Mr Monti told Giorgio Napolitano, the president, that he intended to resign. By then, he had lost the support of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL) movement. The 76-year-old Mr Berlusconi then said he would be his party’s candidate for prime minister. He later cast doubt on this, even making a bizarre offer to stand down if Mr Monti wanted to take over his party—a sign perhaps that the former prime minister senses that his candidacy risks becoming an embarrassing catastrophe. It has run into a barrage of international condemnation and even Mr Berlusconi’s old chums in the Northern League are hesitating about whether to renew their electoral alliance with the PdL.
Mr Berlusconi launched himself into the campaign with an implicit renunciation of the actions of Mr Monti’s government, which his party has until now supported. The billionaire media mogul has since depicted the government’s policies as unnecessarily painful and imposed on a Germanophile Mr Monti by the government in Berlin. He has scorned concerns over the interest cost on Italy’s vast public debt, which Mr Monti had almost halved before Mr Berlusconi’s reappearance panicked investors. And he held out to voters the prospect that he could undo the reintroduction of an unpopular property tax and reignite growth, something he signally failed to do in the eight years between 2001 and 2011 when he held power.
Some of Mr Monti’s comments, obliquely countering Mr Berlusconi’s populist contentions, suggest he is itching to defend his government’s record. But those close to him say he is genuinely undecided about whether to run. The risks are considerable, and not just for Mr Monti.
A central problem of Italian democracy is that both its main parties are an ideological hotch-potch. On the left, the Democratic Party (PD) is the offspring of a marriage between ex-communists and former Christian Democrats. On the right, the PdL is the outcome of a merger between reconstructed neo-fascists and Mr Berlusconi’s heterogeneous following of opportunists, ex-socialists, conservatives and the odd liberal. Mr Monti has the chance to lay the foundations of an altogether more presentable conservative movement: an Italian reflection of the principles that inspire the European Peoples’ Party in the European Parliament.
The building blocks already exist: the conservative Union of Christian and Centre Democrats (UDC); a new movement led by the chairman of Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, which was founded specifically as a vehicle for the prime minister; and other, smaller groups. Mr Monti could steal votes from the PdL, which is in danger of breaking apart despite Mr Berlusconi’s return and from the moderate wing of the PD. Above all, says Antonio Noto of IPR Marketing, “he could lure to the polls some of the 25% of Italians who say they are not tempted by any of the existing parties”, or even by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, a former comedian.
Big business and the Catholic church have already signalled their support for the prime minister. And Mr Monti could prove a good foil for the slick, showy tycoon. Mr Berlusconi has been defeated twice in five general elections. Each time, his nemesis was another quietly-spoken economics professor with impeccable European credentials: Romano Prodi.
The snag is that Mr Monti’s real adversary would not be Mr Berlusconi, but the leader of the PD, Pier Luigi Bersani, who has pointedly warned the prime minister to stay out of the fray. Without exception, the polls show the PD and its allies with a substantial lead. Under Italy’s electoral rules, whichever coalition comes first receives a bonus that guarantees it a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. But in the Senate the bonus is allocated region by region. The big risk for the governability of Italy after the election is a result that gives a coalition a majority in the chamber, but not in the Senate.
A pro-Monti coalition would find it hard to overtake the PD nationally, but could ruin its chances of dominating both houses. A hung Senate might also give Mr Berlusconi, whose party has sunk to around 15% in the polls, his most realistic chance of retaining influence. But so long as Mr Monti was ready to join forces with Mr Bersani after the election, the PdL could be pushed firmly into opposition, along with Mr Grillo’s representatives.
Other calculations are weighing on Mr Monti. If he were to stand, he would have to give up his life senator’s seat. A decision to run could mean he lost his chance to occupy the Quirinal palace as Italy’s head of state when Mr Napolitano retires next year. That is where Mr Bersani would like to see him, as a guarantor of future reforms. Above all, there is the increasingly unfathomable Berlusconi variable. If Mr Berlusconi were to pull out, or his party to implode, the temptation for Mr Monti to pounce might become irresistible.