Thursday December 20 2012

Italy: The end of Mario Monti?

Toby Abse reports on the latest manoeuvres in Rome

Monti: austerity

After 13 months, Silvio Berlusconi has finally pulled the plug on Mario Monti’s technocratic government.

Monti was appointed by president Giorgio Napolitano in November 2011 after Berlusconi as prime minister brought Italy to the verge of a Greek-style financial meltdown that could have wrecked the entire euro zone. But now Berlusconi has withdrawn the support of his Popolo della Libertà (PdL) from the left-right ‘strange majority’ that had sustained Monti in parliament. PdL party secretary Angelino Alfano, acting as his master’s voice despite his grave personal reservations about hard-line Europhobic populism, made the requisite bitterly critical speech in parliament, lambasting the entire economic record of Monti’s government and indicating that the PdL would abstain in all future votes of confidence.

Within days Monti, fearing that the PdL would go further and veto any proposed law that was not to their taste or even ambush the government at short notice, felt it was far more dignified to quit while he was still ahead rather than to struggle on for months as a lame-duck premier. He therefore took the decision on December 8 to tell Napolitano that he was resigning - not with immediate effect, but from the moment that the ‘stability law’ (budget) for 2013 was passed. There is every likelihood that the budget will be passed without opposition from the PdL, although the latter has engaged in delaying tactics in an attempt to prevent that taking place on December 20 - if it is not passed by the end of the year, that would undoubtedly panic the markets. It is thought Monti will resign immediately afterwards.

It is extremely probable that the subsequent general election will be held in late February or early March. Predictably, despite all the talk of electoral reform, the election will be held under the system devised by the Lega Nord’s Roberto Calderoli in 2005, which Calderoli himself described as the legge porcata (pig law) and which more cultivated journalists and political scientists have now dignified with the more pompous Latinate label of ‘the Porcellum’. This law was originally inspired by Berlusconi’s desire to prevent Romano Prodi’s centre-left from gaining a stable majority in 2006 and has a number of wilfully perverse provisions. For example, whilst there is a straightforward national prize for the leading party or coalition of 55% of the seats in the lower house, in the Senate each regional winner picks up its own majority bonus. As a result, there could well be a different overall majority in the upper house, given the right’s longstanding dominance in a few large regions, such as Lombardy, Lazio and Sicily.

With the clear lead of the ex-‘official communist’-dominated Partito Democratico over the PdL in the opinion polls in the last few months, it seems very likely that one of Berlusconi’s motives for pulling the plug on Monti was to ensure that plans for electoral reform vigorously advocated by president Napolitano and supported by Monti were killed off in a relatively discreet way: various parliamentary manoeuvres to delay an agreement were becoming increasingly embarrassing, as the PdL had to keep inventing spurious schemes that it knew the PD would reject in order not to take political and moral responsibility for keeping the infamous ‘pig law’ in being.1

Euro spotlight

Berlusconi’s decision to ditch Monti has turned the spotlight of Europe (and to some extent the USA) on Italy. And he drew further attention to himself by making a number of well publicised speeches attacking the austerity policy of the Monti government, which he blamed on the European Union in general, and Germany and indeed Angela Merkel in particular.

Whilst xenophobic populism might well have been quite an effective means of boosting the PdL’s domestic poll ratings from the roughly 15% to which it had fallen in early December, it was bound to elicit a negative reaction abroad, not only in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels, but even in Washington, where a newly re-elected Barack Obama has no reason to forget the Italian’s racist gibes about his ‘suntan’. Whilst The Times may have confined itself to cartoons mocking Berlusconi’s sexual antics on an inside page, the French daily Libération on December 10 had a front page portraying Berlusconi as an Egyptian mummy, indicating that the reaction to Berlusconi’s return within the euro zone is one of fear, not patronising amusement.

Therefore, the European People’s Party - the centre-right bloc in the European parliament that used to be labelled Christian Democratic before it admitted Berlusconi’s Forza Italia/PdL into its ranks - decided to take what was by its standards rather vigorous action, inviting Monti to a caucus of the EPP, a group of which he is not officially a member, in order to praise his government’s record over the last year and implicitly disavow Berlusconi, whose party is still nominally attached to the group. Berlusconi was well aware of his isolation from the rest of the European centre-right, which had aligned itself, whether from conviction or from self-interest, behind the German chancellor - at one stage she had allowed it to be believed that she might boycott the EPP caucus to avoid meeting Berlusconi.

So the latter did a quick somersault and suggested that he would withdraw his own candidacy if Monti was willing to lead an electoral cartel of ‘all the moderates’, including the PdL and - as far as anybody could understand in the absence of any contra-indication, Lega Nord - against the threat from the centre-left, which Berlusconi still portrays as barely disguised ‘communists’.

It should be borne in mind that even Berlusconi, despite his own tendency to megalomania - he once notoriously described himself as ‘the anointed of the Lord’ - is unlikely to believe his own propaganda about the possibility of a PdL victory in February and is now more concerned with protecting himself and his economic interests against the judiciary. Having recently been found guilty of fraud, he awaits the outcome of the Ruby trial, in which he is accused of paying an underage prostitute for sexual services. Further sittings of the court have been scheduled for January 21, January 28 and February 4, which means there could be a verdict a week before the general election; no doubt the defence will come up with ingenious delaying tactics, however.

A Monti politically dependent on Berlusconi and the PdL might be bamboozled into acting as the tycoon’s protector against the magistrates. Whilst such a deal would appeal to Berlusconi, it has few attractions for Monti, whose foreign fan club was built on his reputation as a sincere practising Catholic with an immaculate personal life and a convinced Europhile neoliberal - the polar opposite of the sleazy and increasingly Europhobic populist. Whilst Monti may well have been willing to act as Berlusconi’s client in order to secure his old post as a European commissioner, such days are long gone and it seems unlikely that Monti would want the poisoned chalice of a second premiership dependent on the whims of Berlusconi for his parliamentary majority.

What still remains in doubt is whether Monti intends to play a direct part in the forthcoming election. Whilst Merkel, Obama and, if the Italian press is to believed, François Hollande too may see Monti as a safe pair of hands who would minimise the risk of Italy precipitating any further euro zone crisis, he does not have the same degree of support amongst the Italian people as he has amongst the European elites. A recent poll2 makes it clear that only 30% of the Italian electorate favour Monti standing at the general election, whilst 61% are against such an intervention. As many as 78% of PdL voters are opposed, which further undermines the credibility of Berlusconi’s offer to Monti. On the other hand, 44% of PD voters support Monti intervening, even if a slightly larger number - 50% - oppose it. After more than a year of utterly abject subservience to Monti and his neoliberal agenda, the PD is only reaping what it has sown - however irked its leader, Pierluigi Bersani, may be at the prospect of his own premiership slipping away from him. It should also be pointed out that if 30% of the electorate are in principle in favour of Monti standing, only somewhere between 3% and 5% would definitely vote for any list he headed.

Obviously the existing centre formations, such as the Unione di Centro (UdC), are the most consistent supporters of a Monti candidacy, since they are convinced that all the components of any potential bloc led by him would benefit from an increased share of the vote. The centre of the political spectrum is becoming quite crowded, as it is almost certain that the think tank, Italia Futura, founded by Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, is going to stand as a political party, even if its name and candidates are still to be decided. Montezemolo’s grouping seems willing to make some deal with the UdC, but currently has reservations about working with Gianfranco Fini’s Futura e Libertà per Italia (FLI), with which the UdC has been loosely aligned since Fini’s break with Berlusconi in 2010. In addition to Montezemolo’s followers, there are other embryonic centre formations involving some of Monti’s former ministers, as well as the leader of the traditionally Catholic trade union confederation, the CISL.3 If Monti does throw his hat in the ring, there is also the real possibility of defections from the more moderate Europhile wing of the PdL or the more neoliberal and/or former Christian Democratic right wing currents of the PD, which would swell the ranks of the centre bloc and make it a real rival to the PD-Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà alliance.

It is now crystal-clear that Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà (SEL) will be part of a PD-led coalition in February’s contest. Vendola participated in the first round of the PD-organised centre-left primary contest in November, coming third out of a total of five candidates, and then threw the electoral weight of his followers behind Bersani in the second round against the rightwing candidate. Although Bersani’s dependence on Vendola for his second-round victory has pulled him to the left to some extent, the chances of the PD returning to a more traditionally social democratic position in the event of a general election victory are poor, to say the least. The choice of the Americanising name, Partito Democratico, marked a clear break with any vestigial attachments to the traditions of the labour movement.

‘Fourth pole’

Recent weeks have seen the emergence of a ‘fourth pole’ opposed to the three existing party groupings - PD-SEL, PdL-Lega and UdC-centre. This new Movimento Arancione (Orange Movement) is supported by Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani, the Verdi (Greens)4 and, it now seems, Antonio di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori. It also incorporates the grouping known as Alba, led by Paul Ginsborg, the British expatriate history professor from Florence university, and a somewhat broader grouping of left intellectuals, including the sociologist Donatella della Porta.

It is likely that the Movimento Arancione (MA) will be led by the former Palermo anti-mafia magistrate currently working for the United Nations in Guatemala, Antonio Ingroia. Whilst not exactly the Italian Syriza of PRC leader Paolo Ferrero’s dreams,5 the MA is clearly opposed to both Berlusconi and Monti, to neoliberalism as well as corruption and the Mafia, and believes the PD has made too many concessions to the austerity agenda - although some of its components are still vague as to whether they might do a deal with the PD after the election if they secured parliamentary representation.

However, if Ingroia becomes the figurehead of this cartel, conflict with the PD is fortunately absolutely assured, since he is the magistrate who became involved in direct confrontation with Napolitano over the president’s four notorious intercepted phone calls to former Christian Democrat interior minister Nicola Mancino, currently accused of involvement in illicit negotiations with the Mafia in 1993-94. Whilst Ingroia’s involvement would prevent any backsliding towards the PD, it is not clear whether even having such a famous figurehead would allow the MA to get over the 4% threshold for the Chamber of Deputies, the stumbling block for the ill-fated Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) of 2008.

Marco Ferrando’s hard-line Trotskyist Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori (PCL) will stand independently of the MA and may by using the hammer and sickle symbol and the word ‘communist’ on the ballot paper take votes away from some who might otherwise have voted for the PRC or PdCI if these communists had raised the red flag rather than an orange one.6 Given that the PCL has no chance whatsoever of getting anybody into the Chamber of Deputies, it seems an act of extreme sectarianism to prevent the working class from regaining some measure of communist representation of however flawed a character - something whose loss in 2008 has had disastrous consequences for militant trade unionists, student activists, environmentalists and all other serious opponents of the existing order.

Whilst the Movimento Arancione, despite its own weaknesses, represents a genuine left opposition to the system, greater media and popular attention will unfortunately be focused on Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) as a new phenomenon on the Italian political scene. Whilst M5S has a record of taking up environmental issues and correctly attacks the widespread corruption of the established political parties (which has infected large chunks of the PD and not just the PdL, Lega Nord and UdC), it cannot, of course, be regarded as a leftwing force. Grillo has taken a racist position in opposing the extension of citizenship rights to the children of immigrants and M5S in Bologna has joined the PdL in supporting the murderously violent, hard-line neo-Nazis of Casa Pound. This fits in with the ultra-nationalist Europhobia manifested in repeated calls for Italy’s immediate return to the lira.

Despite his rhetoric about direct democracy and internet-based horizontalism, Grillo is adopting an increasingly authoritarian stance, expelling local M5S councillors over trivial issues without any pretence at due process. Moreover, the M5S online primary selection of candidates has lacked any transparency. Questions have also been raised about the party’s financing and the precise role of the mysterious Casaleggio Associates in running the party centre. In short, there are rather too many parallels between Grillo and Berlusconi for comfort.


1. It ought to be pointed out that, as things stand, the ‘pig law’ in the lower house works to the advantage of the PD: with any luck it could get 55% of the seats with only 35% of the vote if the remaining 65% is fragmented. The offers being made by the PdL involved setting a threshold of 40% or higher before the majority prize kicked in, so that the PD would have great difficulty in winning outright and might perhaps be forced into a national unity coalition with the PdL against the threat of a rising M5S.

2. See Corriere della Sera December 16.

3. The Catholic church hierarchy, which favoured Berlusconi for so many years, now seems to have dumped him for a revived centrism under Monti. This choice is based on political, not personal or religious, considerations, since the church never had any hesitation in backing the libertine Berlusconi against the pious Catholic family man, Romano Prodi.

4. It is, of course, slightly bizarre that the rump Green party, consisting of its old centre and right, has aligned itself with the PRC, after its left split a few years ago to join the right wing of the old PRC in Vendola’s SEL.

5. After the myopic refusal of Nichi Vendola and SEL to respond to his call for radical left regroupment on the Syriza model, Ferrero had a rather limited choice of potential allies.

6. I assume that Sinistra Critica, which is in a weaker state than the PCL, lacking even its limited implantation in the working class and almost entirely consisting of students, will not be repeating its own sectarian exploit of 2008. Whilst the PRC made some grave errors in 2006-08, it was the candidacies of the PCL and Sinistra Critica - obtaining more than 1% taken together - which in all probability prevented the Sinistra Arcobaleno from crossing the parliamentary threshold and deprived the class of representation in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in more than a hundred years.

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