(Photo by Christof Stache/AFP/Getty)
The former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato once compared the powers of Italy’s president to an accordion. Just as the box-shaped musical instrument can expand and contract, the same is true for the influence of Italy’s head of state: what the president can or cannot do largely depends on the strength of the political parties.
On Thursday, Italy’s 949 MPs and 58 representatives from the 20 regions will convene to elect the successor to President Giorgio Napolitano. Amato himself is a candidate, alongside former prime minister Romano Prodi, former European commissioner Emma Bonino, and others.
The political stalemate following February’s inconclusive election means that the new president will have to be picked on the basis of a last-minute deal between the centre-left, (the largest alliance in Parliament) and at least one of the other three significant forces – the centre-right coalition of the People of Liberty and the Northern League, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Mario Monti’s Civic Choice. There are no clear favourites for the job. Yet, this election will matter a great deal for Italy and for those who are interested in a solution to its political crisis.
For decades, the President’s job was seen as largely ceremonial. True, the President is the head of the judiciary and of the armed forces. But he doesn’t have anything like the kind of executive powers held by the French or American presidents (though he can veto any law if he believes it is against the constitution). Read more
The Italian dog that did not bark is one of the great untold market stories of the past month. The yield on Rome’s 10-year bonds is around 4.3 per cent, a level not seen since the end of January.
Chart: Italy’s 10-year bond yield (black line) over the past five years; blue line shows the yield on the German 10-year bund
(Chart courtesy Reuters)
The spread with the Bund, which has obsessed Italians since the market panic at the end of 2011, has narrowed to just above 300 basis points. It almost looks as if February’s inconclusive election and the accompanying political uncertainty do not matter. This is puzzling, so here are a few tentative explanations:
1) Mario Draghi’s magic. The pledge by the president of the European Central Bank last summer to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro is the single most important explanation for the relative quiet on Italy’s bond market. The Outright Monetary Transactions scheme, whereby the ECB will purchase unlimited quantities of debt of countries in difficulty, has so far proven a remarkably resilient firewall. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
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.