Mario Monti's alternatives

James Walston examines the alternatives ahead for Mario Monti as Italy prepares for general elections. What follows was first posted on Walston's blog on 16 December.

Politics is about power and policy, the two motivations for anyone to get involved. You go into politics because there are issues you want to push whoever is pushing them or because you just like the taste and trappings of power, whatever the issues. There are few politicians who are wholly one or the other but most veer one way and from what we have seen so far, Mario Monti is a man of policy and principle.

He is a Catholic and is moderately neo-liberal economically and progressive socially. He was appointed to push through economic reform and that is his agenda. Though no doubt he is flattered by all the compliments and prodding from the European Popular Party leaders and even from the Socialist François Hollande and a 45% approval rating from Italians, who all think he is doing a good job, that alone is not enough to make him want to stand for office and possibly make a fool of himself.

If this is the case, he has to choose how best to pursue his policies. We can question those policies but it is difficult to question his motives for pursuing them. He has said repeatedly that he can walk away from the prime ministership and I think he means it.

He has various possible strategies. Dreams and nightmares.

He could go explicitly with his nearest ideological bedfellows – Pierferdinando Casini, Luca di Montezemolo and maybe Gianfranco Fini? Since he doesn’t have to be elected, it would mean lending his name to either a special list, “Lista per Monti” or suchlike or explicitly supporting the UDC. At the moment they are polling less than 10% so Monti would be reduced to being part of a minority party. That would be a pretty dull dream unless he was able to move unhappy centre right voters from Berlusconi and the rapidly disintegrating PdL into something looking like a neo-Christian Democratic party. The buzz at the moment is that he is preparing his list but no one has explained how he might find candidates for the 945 posts in Parliament to be filled (or even a fraction of them) in a month. Berlusconi managed in 1994 by putting in his employees; Di Pietro, the anti-corruption magistrate found his own party full of buyable turncoats expert in expenses scams. It is difficult to find a cabinet of unsullied public figures let alone a whole parliament. A Monti list would risk looking like a lifeboat for parliamentarians on sinking ships (Corriere della Sera’s Ferruccio De Bortoli) has already compared the centre right to the wreck of the Medusa).

Or he could move to more distant relations. Bersani has made it clear from the beginning of Monti’s premiership that he would be happy to continue working with him. With his newly won legitimacy from the primaries, Bersani could probably bring the left of the PD with him and certainly have the centrist API within the coalition (API’s Bruno Tabacci stood in the centre-left primaries) but would have serious difficulty with Nichi Vendola and Monti would not want to work with him. This could also bring Casini and the UDC into something similar to the present government after Berlusconi’s departure and with a working majority. That would be closer to dream (ticket).

The programme would include (and emphasise) growth and spending and greater social equity, something that both Monti and Bersani have already promised. They would continue austerity and convince doubters, motivated by fear rather than any wonderful prospects.

The nightmare is that he does decide to lead Berlusconi’s proposed rassemblement (Berlusconi uses the French because any Italian term suggests a “heap”) of moderati (difficult to see what is moderate in Berlusconi, but that is part of Italian Newspeak). This would win the elections which after three months would fall apart because they cannot decide on what action to take. The spread tops 500 points and America’s fiscal cliff looks like a soft option. Monti’s ideas and his personal prestige would be blown to shreds and the recession would go on for another two or three years.

Then I wake up… and tell myself that Monti has already said explicitly (to the Catholic paper L’Avvenire) that he is not the continuation of the PdL, that Berlusconi and Alfano have insulted not only him but have rubbished his policies.

Monti’s choice lays bare the left-right divide in Italy and shows it to be much more a question of which gang you belong to rather than serious policy differences – there are indeed very serious policy cleavages but they cut across the existing parties rather than divide them.

James Walston is an associate professor of International Relations at the American University of Rome

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now more likely to be almost a month after the probable 17 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg