ROME — Blue lights flashing, a stream of limousines and security escorts held up Rome’s evening traffic and disgorged their occupants — politicians, bankers, Catholic clerics, diplomats, movie stars and, as guest of honor, the professorial figure of Prime Minister Mario Monti.
“A display of pure Roman power,” was how one guest described the incongruous mix in a rooftop restaurant echoing with techno-style music.
The reception was hosted by Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone, a publicity-shy billionaire real estate magnate, to celebrate the relaunch of his newspaper, Il Messaggero, on its 134th birthday.
As guests noted, it was not clear who was courting whom. But with speculation building over Monti’s future after his technocrat government steps down, it did not go unremarked that Caltagirone’s son-in-law, Pier Ferdinando Casini, is leading a campaign to keep Monti in office.
Italy’s two main parties want Monti to go once his tenure as caretaker prime minister is up. But Casini, head of the small centrist UDC party, and other smaller parties, industrialists and financiers see him as the sole guarantor of stability if, as widely feared, elections next spring produce a fragmented parliament and no clear victor against a backdrop of rising public anger at a discredited political elite.
Efforts to persuade the unelected Monti to step up and run as a candidate have failed so far, although he has said he would be willing to serve if called upon, as he was a year ago after Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right government resigned amid turmoil in the financial markets.
Asked at a conference hosted by the Financial Times in Milan whether he would like to stay in the job, Monti replied, “No.” But he also said: “I am seeing many people do imagine such a scenario. Some like it, and some dislike it.”
His caution is understandable. Apart from the obvious difficulties of running a disparate coalition surrounded by bickering politicians, Monti is also losing popularity as recession, now in its sixth quarter, deepens. Polls show that support for him and his government has nearly halved since a year ago to around 35 percent of Italians.
Visits by ministers to Naples and Sardinia this week triggered protests by students and workers. The only political leader rising in the polls is Beppe Grillo, an activist comedian whose anti-establishment Five Star Movement emerged as the largest party in Sicily’s regional elections last month.
“The traditions of revolt are arguably stronger in Italy than in any other European country. Given the depth of the economic problems Italy faces, the scale and direction of its public anger merits close attention,” commented Christopher Duggan, history professor at Reading University, during anti-austerity protests on Wednesday.
Marking the anniversary this week of Monti’s sudden rise to office, Italian newspapers have devoted reams to summing up his progress. The “Monti dividend” has been restoration of Italy’s credibility on the international stage and, with Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank, a joint strategy that has quelled market panic over the future of the euro.
Martin Slater, who runs a public relations agency in Milan, goes further. “This is the first government you feel is at the service of the citizens, instead of seeing citizens as at their service,” he said, commenting on Italy’s pervasive corruption.
But even Il Sole 24 Ore, a business daily supportive of Monti, slams the tax increases and “timid” spending cuts imposed to reduce the budget deficit. Monti’s stated first priority of promoting growth “has lost its way,” it commented.
“We erred on the side of excessive intervention,” Monti admitted, arguing that decisive action was needed last year to put out the “fire” spreading through the euro zone from its third-largest economy.
That Italy has already nearly met its funding needs for its $2.5 trillion public debt this year is a major achievement. Yields on 10-year bonds are down from about 7 percent last November to just under 5 percent this week.
The government says its measures have sown the seeds of future growth. Legislation on promoting start-ups will be the finest in Europe, according to Passera, while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the reforms will add 4 percent to the economy over the next decade.
Augusto Lopez Claros, World Bank director of global indicators, says the Monti government has been ambitious but that structural problems and erosion of competitiveness are “not going to be addressed overnight.”
“My hope is that the various political parties in Italy will be motivated by the interest of the country and will find a way to consensus and push forward with the government’s reform agenda,” he said.
— Financial Times