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.
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
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.
Instability rules in Italy
Italian national elections have ended in chaos and the voters’ message is that they are tired of austerity and the political elite. The country faces a hung parliament after votes were split between a former comedian, an ex-prime minister who faces corruption charges, and the centre-left, who won narrowly in the lower house. Mario Monti, the technocratic prime minister who was appointed 15 months ago, came a distant fourth place. In this podcast, Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent, Peter Spiegel, Brussels bureau chief, and Ferdinando Giugliano, leader writer, join world news editor Shawn Donnan to discuss the unfolding drama, which could take weeks to resolve.
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.
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.
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…
Beppe Grillo at a rally in March 2008 (Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty)
He has been called many things: clown, showman, a “sans-culottes satirist”, Italy’s “funniest man”. And less complimentary things too: “populist, extremist and very dangerous”. But Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-political campaigner, can give as good as he gets. His nickname for Silvio Berlusconi is “the psycho-dwarf”, while he refers to the technocrat Mario Monti as “rigor Montis”. Grillo’s way with words is just one talent he has used to shake up the political landscape in Italy in recent years; his digital savvy – he runs Italy’s most popular blog – has helped him harness growing public anger at corruption and turn it into a grassroots political movement.
Final opinion polls published ahead of the February 24-25 election showed his Five Star Movement in third position with 13-16% of the vote – ahead of Monti’s Civic Choice and only a few points behind Berlusconi’s People of Liberty. So how did he get there? And what does he really believe in?
In the FT
Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) presents itself as an antidote to a corrupt political elite, focused on five key areas: public water, transportation, development, internet availability, and the environment. In October, the group scored well in a regional election in Sicily, despite a web-driven campaign spending of just €25,000 – far less than the major parties. The head of one of Italy’s biggest companies lamented: “I can’t stand Grillo. He is against everything. He is aiming to destroy not change”.
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. Read more
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. Read more
But electoral considerations have trumped solidarity with France over Mali, forcing an embarrassing u-turn.
Mario Monti’s foreign and defence ministers last month pledged logistical help in the form of transport planes and refuelling for the French. “We are beside you, Paris,” newspapers proclaimed. But on Sunday, in Paris, Italy’s technocrat prime minister had to explain to François Hollande that no such support would be forthcoming after all.
Franco Frattini, former foreign minister and member of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right party, is particularly disappointed, having passed a resolution in parliament on January 22 – with support from members of the centre-left Democrats and the centrist UDC – that backed Italian logistical intervention.
“Because of the election campaign we run the risk of not fulfilling our European duties of solidarity,” Mr Frattini told the FT. Read more
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.
Mr Monti, long-time economics professor and former EU commissioner who was appointed technocrat prime minister in late 2011, has never run for elective office in his life, and it shows.
Enter David Axelrod, Mr Obama’s two-time campaign strategist, who responding to a report in Turin’s La Stampa, confirms to my FT Washington colleague Richard McGregor that his old firm AKPD Message and Media has been hired by Mr Monti. Mr Axelrod says he had been retained “to take a look and come in for a day to meet with Monti and his team, which I did.” He adds for transparency’s sake: “I no longer have an interest in AKPD.” Read more
With six and a half weeks to go, the situation is still too fluid to make a call on who will win. But, for those not versed in the art of Italian politics, we thought it would be helpful to explain the main players involved, and outline the chances of the two very different men who have held the most influence over Italy in the past few years – Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi.
A centre-left coalition dominated by the Democratic Party, in alliance with the more left-wing Left, Ecology, Freedom party
Berlusconi’s right-wing alliance between his People of Freedom and the Northern League
A centrist coalition led by Italy’s technocratic prime minister, now turned politician, Mario Monti. This includes the PM’s own list, Civic choice for Monti,the Christian Democrats and a smaller centre-right party, Future and Freedom for Italy
The Five Star Movement, brainchild of the comedian-cum-blogger, Beppe Grillo
A left-wing group, Civil Revolution, set up by the former anti-mafia judge Antonio Ingroia
Italy’s cumbersome electoral law, which is different for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, makes the lives of the phsephologists even harder. Here’s what we know about the situation in each house. Read more
The looming political showdown in Italy
Italian prime minister Mario Monti has said he’ll resign, making elections likely to occur next February. But who is likely to win, or even who will run, remains unclear. Both Mr Monti and Silvio Berlusconi are possible candidates. Guy Dinmore, FT bureau chief in Rome, Tony Barber, Europe editor, and Ferdinando Giugliano, leader writer, join Gideon Rachman.
Gideon became chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times in July 2006. He joined the FT after a 15-year career at The Economist, which included spells as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Washington and Bangkok. He also edited The Economist’s business and Asia sections.
His particular interests include American foreign policy, the European Union and globalisation.