Professor Mario Monti was appointed to the post of Italian Prime Minister last November. It might be anticipated that this week the national and international media will be celebrating his first ‘100 days’ in power. This slightly trivial approach appears justified in Monti’s case, for success in his endeavour could well represent a major milestone in Italy’s political and economic development, and this not only as a result of the stark contrast of his style of government compared to the preceding Berlusconi era.
To understand the Italian situation in its complexity, the events which led to the fall of Berlusconi and to the formation of the current ‘technical’ Government need retracing. Precisely because Monti’s mandate will be extremely short, at the most until next spring, it is important to understand how this experience is viewed by Italian public opinion and to deduce what could lie ahead, also taking into account the fact that the Roman Catholic Church will certainly have a renewed, more forcible and relevant role in future developments.
For a number of months before the fall of Berlusconi’s Government, there had been intense speculation on his future both in the Italian and in the international media. The basic turning point, however, came in May of last year, when, in spite of a massive, no holds barred, media campaign, Berlusconi and his allies suffered humiliating defeats in local elections in Milano – his own political backyard - and Naples, to be followed only weeks later by similar setbacks in four key popular referenda. Few outside observers, however, noted that, while it was easy to point out that Berlusconi and his allies were the losers, the main opposition party, which had supported neither of the two winning candidates nor the referenda, was certainly not the winner. The ‘Democratic Party’ made a belated attempt to get onto the winning bandwagon, but emerged from the experience with an extremely battered image. The ensuing crisis, in spite of its apparent inevitability, played itself out in excruciating slow motion because of the Prime Minister’s insistence that he could count on his dwindling but still decisive majority in Parliament, and rescue Italy from what was already then being called “a Greek situation”.
Outside factors, however, including reliable opinion polls that showed his approval rating drop from over 60% to an appalling 24%, gave the Party members the necessary courage to persuade Berlusconi to leave. His parliamentary majority, if needed, would probably still be there in spite of numerous defections, and a ‘no confidence’ vote could easily be arranged, forcing Monti’s resignation, at the drop of a hat. But the forces behind Berlusconi know full well that if the Government were to be brought down, the outcome of the ensuing elections would be disastrous for them.
On the other hand, the Italian electorate has shown such mistrust of the political world that the main opposition group, the ‘Democratic Party’ and most of its allies, would fare only slightly better. They, in any case, do not have the number of votes needed to topple the existing Government.
The resulting paradox is that Monti is supported by an abnormally large majority formed by the two main, bitterly antagonistic, political parties, neither of which appears willing or able to precipitate his fall. This circumstance represents both the strength and the weakness of the Government, for while the numerical majority appears solid as never before in Italian democratic history, it is, in reality, very fragile and needs careful handling on the part of the Prime Minister and his colleagues.
In his cool, detached, self-deprecating manner, Monti appears impervious to all the ongoing, albeit somewhat muted, political uproar in the two houses of Parliament, as, indeed, he has been able to weather some rather severe waves of protest, by continuing steadily along his declared path and, when necessary, asking Parliament for a vote of confidence, which he is practically certain to obtain. One extremely relevant factor – which certainly has not escaped either his or the Political Parties’ notice – is that in spite of the protests and the discomfort brought about by them, and in spite of the severe, painful, economic measures the Government is imposing, all the opinion polls indicate that Monti’s approval rating remains close to 60%.
In the coming days, the Government will probably face new waves of strikes and protests, as it endeavours to update Italy’s antiquated labour laws. But there is a feeling abroad that this storm also will be weathered with style and that things will continue more or less along the established path.
Monti has stated that he has no political ambitions for the future: his protestations are credible also because he seems ill-suited to the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the Italian electoral process. He does, however have a realistic chance of succeeding Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Republic, his only rival being, at this time, Silvio Berlusconi.
But what about the future of Italian politics in a post-Monti era?
Confusion and paradox are endemic qualities in Italy’s political life, and the present situation is no exception. None of the parties, except, perhaps those who ‘safely’ oppose Monti (the Northern League and some maverick but increasingly influential left wing parties) are looking forward to the inevitable electoral challenge set for spring of next year. It is absolutely impossible to foresee the outcome of these elections, but it seems safe to assume that they will bring about some fundamental changes in Italy’s political spectrum.
Strangely enough, the party which will probably benefit the most will be one of the minority ‘Centrist’ parties, the U.D.C., led by devout Roman Catholic Ferdinando Casini, who, with his darkly handsome looks is a well recognised figure on Italian TV screens. This party has been, until now, the most stalwart of Monti’s supporters, and appears to be moving with growing confidence towards a leading position in Italy’s political centre. It is important to note that most of the defectors from Berlusconi’s party have been drifting towards the Catholic centre, and this will give renewed vigour to the ‘Catholic’ vote, which, in Italy, is traditionally a force to be reckoned with.