ITALY’S political parties have begun manoeuvring ahead of elections expected in February as supporters of technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti sought to cajole him to stay in politics.
Monti has repeatedly said he would not campaign for power, but that he would be willing to serve again as an apolitical premier should the vote result be unclear.
But the premier’s unexpected resignation on Saturday in the face of People of Freedom (PDL) leader Silvio Berlusconi’s attacks against his austerity measures are fuelling speculation that Monti is ready to join the race.
Berlusconi himself announced on Saturday that he would run to become premier for a fifth time on a platform that attacks Monti’s stewardship of the economy, only a year after he resigned amid a quagmire of sex and financial scandals and a plunging economic situation.
Italian “progressives” from the centre-left’s Democratic Party (PD) to the Union of the Centre (UDC) “identify with the reasonable and responsible policies Monti has made”, UDC leader Pier Ferdinando Casini said yesterday.
“A large part of civil society does not want to return to the populism and demagoguery of the past. We must give them the political offering they seek.”
PD front-runner candidate Pier Luigi Bersani lauded Monti’s plan to resign immediately after the passage of the budget, saying it showed great dignity. Bersani won a party primary vote last week in which he promised to continue down the path taken by the premier.
The PD leads the PDL by at least 16 percentage points, according to polls from last week.
Berlusconi’s campaign against European Union-inspired austerity, put in place to stem the spread of a debt crisis, “risks undermining the painful sacrifices that each Italian has made this year to save the national economy,” PD lower-house president Dario Franceschini said.
Italians are indeed burdened by the recession, which began mid-way through last year and shows no signs of abating. Many blame Monti’s tax increases for making it worse. Unemployment is at a record high and consumer spending has collapsed.
PDL secretary Angelino Alfano, whose attack in parliament on Friday prompted Monti to step down, defended his party’s decision to withdraw its support for the government.
“We think we did the right thing” in declaring Monti’s government over on Thursday, Alfano said, “to underscore the struggles that Italians are facing because of the dire economic situation.”
The consummate showman, Berlusconi bashed Monti’s leadership as he declared his bid for power on the pitch of his AC Milan football team on Saturday, but Monti stole the scene by resigning later in the day and counter-attacking that “populism” was only a shortcut to winning votes.
Elections in Italy must not hinder Monti’s economic reforms, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso warned in an interview with financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore.
“The next elections must not serve as a pretext for putting in doubt how indispensable these measures are,” he said. “The relative calm on the markets does not mean we are out of crisis.”
Former European Commissioner Monti came to power at the height of the financial crisis a year ago and was widely credited with restoring Italy’s credibility with investors and European partners after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi era.