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Monti-esque but not Monti

3 December 2012 By Hugo Dixon

The last Italian prime minister whose surname began with a “B” – Silvio Berlusconi – was a disaster. The country’s next leader’s name is also likely to start with a “B”.

Investors want Mario Monti, the technocrat who took over from Berlusconi last year, to stay as prime minister after the election, which will probably be in March. But they are more likely to get Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). While there are risks, such an outcome may not be as bad as it looks – not least because Bersani has promised to continue with Monti’s policies and was one of the few reformers when Romano Prodi was prime minister in the last decade.

Trade union-backed Bersani will be the standard-bearer for the left in the coming elections after winning a decisive primary at the weekend against Matteo Renzi, the modernising mayor of Florence. His first comments were promising: he said the PD would have to tell Italians the “truth, not fairy-tales” about the country’s grave economic situation.

What happens next is the subject of feverish speculation and intrigue in Rome, where I spent part of last week. Will the PD and its allies, the radical-left SEL – who collectively have a firm lead in the opinion polls with 36 percent support, according to SWG – be able to secure an overall majority in the election? Or will parliament, which Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition still dominates, change the voting system to deny them that chance? The current electoral law guarantees the coalition with the largest number of votes at least 55 percent of the MPs but there are various schemes under discussion to cut the so-called winner’s premium.

Another topic of speculation is whether Monti will endorse a new movement set up by Luca Di Montezemolo, the Ferrari boss, whose avowed intent is to gather enough votes to secure the technocrat’s continuation as premier? And what about Berlusconi, who received an initial conviction for tax fraud in October? Will he re-enter the political fray by forming a new party?

Finally, how well will Beppe Grillo, the comedian who wants to default on Italy’s debts and pull it out of the euro, do? His Cinque Stelle movement, which defies categorisation on the standard left-right spectrum, is currently polling 20 percent.

Italian politics is always colourful. But what happens in the election is no joke. Despite the European Central Bank’s promise to do whatever it takes to save the euro, Italy still stands fairly close to the financial precipice. If it falls in, the rest of the euro zone will be dragged in too.

The country’s main problems are its recession and high debt. Italy is forecast to shrink by 2.3 percent this year and end the year with debt equal to 126 percent of GDP, according to the European Commission.

The government expects the economy will start growing again in the second half of next year. But consumer confidence is shot to bits, investment is being delayed by political uncertainty, previous rounds of austerity are depressing activity and interest rates are still uncomfortably high. If the economy fails to turn around, debt will rise above 130 percent of GDP. If, at the same time, Italy has a government that is not committed to reform, investors could suffer a new bout of jitters.

Predicting what will happen in Italian politics is tricky, given the large number of moving parts. That said, the right is in such disarray that it is unlikely to be a major force in the next election: Berlusconi’s old party, the PDL, is scoring 14 percent in the opinion polls; its former partner, the Northern League, is on only 6 percent. Meanwhile, even if Grillo does well in the election, he doesn’t want to get involved in any government.

The main question is whether the PD and SEL form a government on their own or whether they team up after the election with a group of centrist parties, including Montezemolo’s. That, in turn, depends not only on how well the PD does in the poll; but on whether Bersani wants a broader mandate for what could be a few tough years of government. It currently looks like he wants such a centre-left alliance – not least because it would help dilute the influence of his radical left partner, the SEL.

The question then would be what the centre would get in return for its backing. Given that it is polling only about 10 percent, it doesn’t have much leverage. But Bersani would presumably make some centrists, as well as a few of Monti’s technocratic team, ministers. He could also back Monti for the important, albeit non-executive, role of president of the republic.

Such calculations could conceivably change if Monti endorsed Montezemolo’s party – and so boosted its showing in the election, in turn giving it the power to push for him to stay as premier. But although Monti is tempted by the scenario – not least because he wants to ensure his reforms continue – getting involved in party politics would be a high-risk strategy. It could damage one of his prime assets: a reputation for impartiality. What’s more, even if Monti did back Montezemolo, the centrists might still fail to make a break-through.

The most likely scenario then for a post-election Italy is a Bersani government with Monti-esque elements. While that is not as attractive as a full Monti government, it does not have to be a disaster.


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