Situation vacant? Mario Monti (Getty)
There were two big job vacancies in Rome last month. The Catholic Church began looking for a new pope after the shock resignation of Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, Italians went about the business of picking a new head of government who would end Mario Monti’s technocratic interlude.
The Vatican is not exactly known for its speedy decision-making. Yet it only took the conclave of cardinals a couple of days to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new head of the church. Pope Francis – as he is now – is already making headlines with his new message centred on the need for a humbler and more austere church.
On the other side of the Tiber, Italian politicians are still struggling to choose a new prime minister. Today and tomorrow, President Giorgio Napolitano is meeting party leaders and other institutional figures to talk about what to do next. But Italy-watchers do not expect white smoke to come out of the presidential palace any time soon.
Last month’s inconclusive elections have produced a three-way deadlock in the Senate between Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right alliance, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. The only solution to the impasse is a government that is backed by at least two of these forces. But this trilemma has no easy solution.
Beppe Grillo, the big winner of Italy’s 2013 election, first rose to fame in the 1970s as an irreverent, foul-mouthed comedian with corruption of all kinds in his sights.
Two interesting trends that have shown up in the data from Italy’s election today.
1) The preliminary election results among the nearly 3.5 million Italian voters living abroad show a very different picture from the results within Italy.
The austerity measures and market-friendly stance of the ex-Prime Minister Mario Monti managed to convinced over 27 per cent of the votes of Italians living in Europe and in North and Central America, where his movement came in second after Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD). Within Italy, fewer than one in ten Italians voted for him.
Meanwhile, the comedian-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo successfully won over Italians in the plazas where he held numerous rallies, but it appears that his anti-establishment message was not heard so sympathetically by Italians around the world.
Mario Monti exits a voting booth on February 24 (AFP/Getty)
Paul Krugman has got in early to comment on the political demise of Mario Monti – who now seems certain to trail in fourth in the Italian elections. According to Krugman, Monti’s reputation for wisdom is wildly overblown. On the contrary, he more or less deserves his fate because he was “in effect, the proconsul installed by Germany.”
Worse, according to Krugman, Monti’s policies did not even work. As in the rest of southern Europe, the economy has shrunk and so debt-to-GDP ratios have risen. There was only one “piece of good news” in the Monti era – that “bond markets have calmed down.” However, Monti cannot claim the credit even for this, because it is “largely thanks to the stated willingness of the ECB to step in and buy government debt when necessary.”
As ever, with Krugman, the argument is forcefully made. But it misses out a crucial stage in the argument and therefore unfairly denigrates the role of Monti in stabilising the Italian economy. Remember, when Monti came to power, the steady rise in the interest rates that Italy was having to pay to finance its debt was eating up more and more of the Italian budget. There was a real prospect that Italy might simply be unable to finance itself through the bond markets – and that might have sparked a terminal crisis in the euro.
Italians cast their ballots in a tight election, with Brussels, Berlin and the markets looking on. By Tom Burgis, Lina Saigol, Ben Fenton and Shannon Bond with contributions from FT correspondents across Italy and beyond. All times are GMT.
On this, the final day of polling in Italy’s 2013 election, we thought it would be worth highlighting five blog posts from the FT that will help provide the context you need to understand the results when they eventually emerge…
As Italy’s increasingly surreal election campaign draws to a close, it is still hard to believe that Silvio Berlusconi, who exited government so ignominiously 18 months ago, may well garner enough votes with his coalition partners next weekend to deny the centre-left and Mario Monti an outright win.
Should that happen, as is probable, Italians are destined for more political instability. They may be back at the polls within a year or 18 months.
In that context alone, understanding the enduring appeal of Berlusconi – who failed to stem a decline of Italian economic competitiveness during his time in office and remains mired in corruption trials – can be baffling for an outsider. But go out on the stump with Italy’s veteran showman, as I did on Monday night, and it all becomes a little clearer.
I have just spent a few days traveling across Veneto, Italy’s industrial heartland in the north east of the peninsula. One of the tasks I had set myself for this trip was to understand whether Italy’s economic crisis is fuelling euroscepticism.
Italy has traditionally been among the continent’s most europhilic countries. To the astonishment of outside observers – particularly those from the Anglo-Saxon world – Italians have seemed relatively at ease with the idea of handing more and more powers over to Brussels.
One of the reasons behind this attitude is their deep lack of trust in their own political class. The euro is seen as a bridge to modernity and progress, rather than a drag on national sovereignty.
After the wave of austerity which has recently hit Italy, and which Brussels was at least partially responsible for, I expected this attitude to have become somewhat less positive. Veneto was an excellent testing ground for its resilience. This wealthy region is governed by Luca Zaia, from the Northern League, the most eurosceptic among Italy’s mainstream parties. Veneto has a strong export-oriented manufacturing sector, which can no longer rely on competitive devaluations as it did in the 1980s and 1990s, before Italy entered the euro.
This point was made to me by Roberto Brazzale, a food entrepreneur from the province of the city of Vicenza, who has off-shored much of his production of parmesan cheese and mozzarella to the Czech Republic. “We must exit the euro,” Mr Brazzale said. “And do it before our industrial base is completely wiped out”.
He is not quite kissing babies yet but Mario Monti is throwing off his image as a fusty economics professor and former EU bureaucrat with his first election campaign spot.
The one-minute spot – released today on social network sites and local television stations – shows the human side of the 69-year-old, playing on the carpet with his grandchildren and promising a “together we can do it” better future.
Hammering home the message that the “old parties are not capable of reforming Italy”, the ad skips over the issue that Mr Monti’s centrist alliance includes two of parliament’s most veteran politicians.
If the campaign carries echoes of Barack Obama, could that be because Italy’s technocrat prime minister has hired two consultants from the old team led by David Axelrod, strategist for the US president?
The spot cleverly splices images of wads of cash changing hands and lines of official limousines as Mr Monti promises to crack down on corruption and wasteful government spending while promising economic growth, jobs and “responsible” tax cuts.
For those used to a democratic system with an established political dynamic – Democrats v Republicans in the US, or Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats in Britain – Italy can seem strange. Some of the parties and alliances running in this year’s general election did not even exist in previous contests.
Italians will be asked to vote in February for one of 169 parties, movements and groups that made it onto the ballot. Many have unfamiliar names, such as the newly formed alliance of Italy, Common Good (which combines the Democratic party, the socialists and others), the Five Star Movement party created by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, or the even newer Monti movement, formed around the agenda of the ex-prime minister.
Data collated by the FT
How could the Italian political system have worked for so long with such a fragmented composition? The answer is that, for most of the time, it hasn’t.