“If Italians want to vote for Silvio Berlusconi, the problem is not Berlusconi, it’s Italians.” Those few words uttered by Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti during a radio interview just days before the end of the political campaign tell the whole story of his descent into politics. It was a frustrating experience for the professor-technocrat turned politician. Monti thought Italians were ready to close a chapter of their recent history, but he failed to take into account two seemingly contradictory factors:
-Traditional Italian politics is deeply rooted in the fabric of its society.
-When the frustration with old politics is big, many Italians favor outsiders. This explains the success of the comedian Beppe Grillo and his five star movement. Even the consummate insider Berlusconi still knows how to tap into that sentiment. The political outsider Monti does not.
On Monday, February 25th Monti, the darling of international financial markets, will find out that he has very little political capital. Barring a last-minute resurgence, the prime minister and his electoral list will fail to muster more than 15% of the votes, the level he needs to be in a strong bargaining position once negotiations over a new government will start. Monti could soon share the fate of many of his technocratic predecessors. He provided a short-term fix for a country in need of long-term solutions. The Monti-era could be coming to an end before it even began. Welcome back to politics as usual. But perhaps we are overlooking something.
Investors still believe and hope that what will emerge in Rome is a center-left coalition with Pier Luigi Bersani (the leader of the social democratic Partito Democratico) at its helm and Monti’s party as a junior partner, either in the role of finance minister or merely as a watchful, yet powerful, guardian. In fact, this still appears to be the more likely outcome of the vote, particularly if Bersani won’t manage to win an outright majority in the upper house, the Senate. Does that mean that Monti will be in the position to lead from behind?
That depends entirely on how many seats he can get in both houses of parliament, but most importantly in the Senate. If Monti is weak, Bersani will merely use him as a political cover in order to please Europe and financial markets. However, without a strong Monti at his side, Bersani will not challenge the powerful trade unions in order to undertake further reforms. He would instead appease his traditional constituents and redistribute wealth with minor tweaks to the tax regime. This would free some resources for minor public investments and solidify his domestic power. He would also try to reduce corporate taxes, but only for companies that hire new young workers. For inspiration and support, he will look at France rather than Germany.
Would such an outcome be a disaster for Italy? If you listen to some German economists, you would think that is not necessarily the case. Holger Schmieding, the chief economist at Berenberg Bank, thinks that the Monti government has already done the heavy lifting for Italy and that what is essentially needed now is continuity, or a steady hand. Some experts argue that as long as the future coalition sticks to fiscal austerity and does not reverse any of the reforms imposed by the technocrats, Italy will manage to emerge from the crisis without further shocks.
But others look at Italy’s lack of competitiveness and paint a bleaker picture. There is enough to be worried about. Recent data indicate that Italy is still not gaining ground on its powerful trading partner to the north, i.e. Germany. Italy’s positive current account adjustments are largely due to a collapse in imports and domestic demand, not because of significantly lower labor-per-unit costs. Credit is still scarce despite the bold steps undertaken by the European Central Bank. According to the latest figures released by the Italian Banking Association (ABI), the ratio of non-performing loans is rising. A return to growth would certainly be possible, but only if Italy’s economy can be lifted by stronger global and European growth. So far there are no signs for such a turnaround in Europe. Despite some encouraging data coming out of Germany, the German economy is increasingly decoupling from the rest of Western Europe as solid exports to emerging markets offset weaker European demand for German goods. France’s economy is stalling and could slip into a recession.
The cautious optimists could therefore be proven wrong. To be sure, a Bersani-Monti coalition would reassure markets in the short term, but its actions could fall far short of what the country really needs.
Why are the potential weaknesses of a Bersani-Monti alliance underestimated by most international investors? Largely because of one reason: the fear that Berlusconi could once again win the electoral contest, or at the very least block any alternative political majority, thereby throwing Italy and Europe into turmoil. These are the only scenarios that really spook markets. They are not alone. In recent days, many leading German politicians have warned against a Berlusconi comeback. What would happen?
First and foremost, Italy would come under attack on financial markets. The spread between Italian sovereign bonds and German bunds would widen dramatically. If Berlusconi formed a new government, he would find himself completely isolated in Europe. Hollande and Merkel would suddenly become best friends. Berlusconi would call for unlimited and unconditional help from the European Central Bank. Its head, Mario Draghi, would remind Berlusconi that the ECB’s bond buying program known as OMT comes with strings attached. Italy would have to apply for assistance, but a country program entails the intrusive presence of representatives of international institutions who would dictate to Rome what to do. Germany would need to endorse such a program. Would Angela Merkel be willing to help Berlusconi, the man who won by running an anti-German campaign? Would she have the courage to show solidarity just a few months before she faces her own German voters? My guess is that she would. Merkel would not let the euro fail just because of a single man. However, Merkel would insist on obtaining a program for Italy with a particularly hard set of conditions. Would Berlusconi give in to the diktat or threaten to abandon the euro? I actually still doubt that he would have the courage to abandon the common currency. He is a masterful bluffer, not a kamikaze. I suspect that his majority in parliament, if faced with isolation in Europe and massive speculative attacks by financial investors, would melt away, just as it did before Berlusconi resigned in the fall of 2011. Does that mean that a comeback of the controversial former prime minister is without risk? Absolutely not, but the risk should not be overstated—just as the cautious optimism surrounding a possible center-left coalition between Bersani and Monti should not lull international observers into complacency.
There is one more possible outcome of this election. It is an option that receives very little attention, largely because Italian politicians have repeatedly stated that it won’t happen: a grand coalition. In this case, the election would produce a hung parliament with a strong presence of the populist Grillo movement in both houses, capable of blocking any possible center-left or center-right majority. The two main parties, the social democratic PD and Berlusconi’s people of freedom party (PDL) would be forced to sit down and make a deal. Mario Monti could play the role of the moderator. Berlusconi would step out of the limelight, but he would make sure that his lieutenants defend his personal interests at the bargaining table.
The irony of this outcome would be that having failed as a campaigning politician, Monti would still be able to play a pivotal role in the future of Italian politics. The professor-technocrat could still become the next prime minister, but this time in a government of politicians forced to work together by the only man who, in this phase of Italian history, can reconcile some of the sharp differences between right and left. The experiment would not last very long, but probably long enough for Italy to take a few more steps that are necessary to overcome its worst political and economic crisis in decades.