By finally stepping into the political fray, Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti has sent a strong message to the outside world that it should still be very worried about the state of his country. Had Monti truly believed that after just about a year of painful reforms and austerity Italy would stay on track —regardless of the outcome on the election on February 24th, 25th — why would he bother to jeopardize his own reputation as a man who, despite many provocations, managed to stay above the political squabbling?

The answer is very simple: Monti does not believe that the country deserves to be given back to the very same political class that was slowly destroying it before he became prime minister. The soft-spoken professor is not only trying to protect his reforms and legagy, he is in fact trying to overcome old Italian politics. How? By becoming the arbiter of any future coalition.

In Monti’s eyes, the abrupt return of the all too familiar old political layout, which was dominated by the decade long personal fight between the controversial figure Silvio Berlusconi on the one hand and his nemesis, the post communist PD (Partito Democratico) now headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, on the other, justified at the very least an attempt to break this seemingly never ending vicious cycle. To be sure, Monti has entered the battlefield with fewer and more scattered troops, primarily betting on Italians’ profound disgust with the old regime. There is no guarantee of success, but the professor has hit the ground running. Gone is his customary conciliatory tone. In a series of recent media appearances, Monti has demonstrated a cunning capacity to resort to vitriolic irony to dismantle his opponents’ arguments. On the receiving end, so far at least, has been one person in particular: Berlusconi himself. Berlusconi is regarded as the main threat to Italy and Europe. Not surprisingly, he is therefore the main objective of Monti’s attacks.

Nevertheless, even the center left PD’s pro labor union stance was attacked by the prime minister, who reminded the left that old recipes will not help Italy in overcoming its chronic lack of competitiveness. The visibly irritated reactions by politicians of all stripes to Monti’s decision to run show that nobody, not even the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano, expected Monti to rewrite the screenplay of his brief excursion into Italian politics. Even that very same President, who after all had imposed Monti’s government on the deeply reluctant Italian political class, did not wish for Monti to turn into a politician. Monti had to merely fix Italy’s most urgent problems and then take a back seat — perhaps even wait to become the next President of the Republic himself.

It now appears that the professor’s role had been in part designed to usher in the smooth return to power by the PD, which is Napolitano’s party after all. But Monti has decided that even the left leaning PD, if left unchecked by a moderate political force, could be a danger to the country. Monti moves between a very ambitious goal, that of burying 20 years of divisive politics, and a more circumscribed one designed to pull the bulk of the PD away from the grip of labor unions and the far left and instead move the party closer to the centre.

European partners, the U.S. government and financial markets are quietly all rooting for Monti to succeed, conscious of the fact that he is not driven by his ego, but by his deep worries about the state of Italian affairs. The professor turned politician has a unique chance to change the course of post-war Italian history.  If he fails, he will become the latest example of a brave technocrat misused by the Italian political class in order to avoid real and lasting reforms.

  • Norman Birnbaum

    Perhaps Professor Monti will succeed where no less honest and talented predecessors like Prodi, Amato, Ciampi failed.—I doubt it, since a reform of Italy’s state as necessary as it is requires a reform of society and technocratic intelligence alone is quite incapable of achieving that. In any event, thinking of the Prime Minister as a disinterested visitor to Italian eartth from the ethereal reaches of politial economy is not entirely accurate. His social commitments were formed in those segments of the old Democrazia Cristiana which had a good deal of decency, and were influenced by the solidaristic doctrines of the Church—and which for decades collaborated closely with the Italian Communist Party which they recognized as entirely legitimate and representative (and in which they found Catholic interlocutors, not least the late Enrico Berlinguer.) These every day facts proving too difficult for the American foreign policy apparatus to communicate so they were treated as insider truths, in a parody of how the Church itself in the Counter Reformation and the struggle with Modernism dealt with the world. Plus ca change….. .