Global Dialogues

Mario Monti’s Midway: A Civic Choice in the Italian Elections?

In a previous article I argued that Italy is witnessing a sort of end of ideology: Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technical government responds to the economic market alone, while Beppe Grillo’s a-political grassroots movement is winning over disappointed voters. But with the elections in sight, the old political guard is warming up, eager to regain control over the country. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has governed the country on and off since 1994, is first in line: after months of tactical holding off, the Cavaliere – as Berlusconi is also called – decided to get back into the game as it became clear that Monti might run for the elections. For some weeks now he has been appearing on every single political and current affairs show on Italian television, primarily on his own TV channels but also on the more critical, independent La7, where he engaged in a highly media hyped duel with a critical journalist Berlusconi managed to have removed from state television back in 2002. On another talk-show, old times again revived as Berlusconi took it out on magistrates who ordered the former PM to pay €36 million ($48 million) a year in a divorce settlement with this ex-wife Veronica Lario: they were accused of being Communists and now also feminists.

The sense of history repeating itself was reflected in a satirical cartoon, where we see Berlusconi’s face on TV as he yells “Happy 1994!” to a terror-stricken viewer. Unless Monti’s newly found political list, “Civic choice,” can put a stop to it. Positioned neither to the left nor to the right, Monti seems to want to do away with traditional polarities in politics for good and give continuity to his technical government, with no one to respond to but the European Union. In fact, when criticized for the rigorous measures taken in order to bring down the government bond spreads, i.e. the spread between Italian benchmark 10 year bonds and safer German Bunds, Monti inflexibly shifted responsibility to bad management by previous governments. In the name of rigor and economic reconstruction, he has thus been able to pull off tricks none of his predecessors could ever have dreamed of getting away with. “Europe wants it” and “I respond to the market,” were Monti’s stoical replies to criticism.

During an international conference on protest cultures in Italy, sociologist Donatella della Porta argued that Monti’s government disguises a “corrupting democracy” and what she coins as “clean corruption,” in that it presents itself as an a-political and neutral government while in reality it is very much immersed in economical politics in the Euro zone (unsurprisingly, Monti is connected to Goldman Sachs). Consequently it has pushed through anti-Constitutional measures that may work in Northern countries such as Germany, but not in Italy. Sponsored (at least until recently) by politics on the left and on the right as well as by mass media, Monti’s government thus follows a neo-liberal program with a highly non-democratic way of decision making, where trust is not sought among citizens but economic markets.

And Monti is not ready to give that up yet. Before his formal decision to participate in the upcoming elections, during the holiday season, he declared that he was “open” to lead the government if he was “asked” to do so. More recently, he invited the Italian center-left to “silence” the more radical, anti-reform elements in its ranks, including the left-wing union organization CGIL. Should the “civic choice” he is offering Italians perhaps be read in ironical sense then? It leads Della Porta to conclude that Monti is more Berlusconian than Berlusconi, whose many trials, gaffes, indecent behavior and political incapacities have made him the official laughing stock of Europe. Monti, on the other hand, is somewhat of a wolf in sheep’s clothing: with the European Union behind him, the serious and polyglot professor is far more respectable than his predecessor. He is indeed the absolute counterpart of “Mr Bunga Bunga,” and even those Italians who didn’t/don’t see through Berlusconi’s game seem to get that: opinion polls reveal that what people most appreciate about Monti is the fact that he has given back “credibility” to the country, a catchy formula which is often repeated in the press, but actually reflects a linguistic media habit where complex issues are reduced to slogans.

In reality, he is not as innocent as he would like us to believe, and I’m not so sure Monti is really doing Italy any good. Recent figures show that youth unemployment has reached 30%, while more and more companies and factories (and not just small and medium enterprises) are closing or being relocated to East-Europe, Asia and Latin-America. Even Fiat, the country’s biggest private-sector employer, is no longer made in Italy. Italians’ purchasing power is staggering, as they are continually faced with tax increases and new taxes such as the much debated council tax, whereas wages – for those who can claim any – fail to grow accordingly. All these problems are arrogantly sidetracked by pulling out the “Europe wants it” story, or by placing Italy on the same level as other European countries, forgetting that Italy seriously lags behind wages – again, for those who (still) have a (paid) job – and civil rights, in comparison with Northern European countries. And what about Monti’s raising of the retirement age? Surely, he could have made exceptions for old age pensions? Contrary to more advanced European countries, in Italy many workers from older and poorer generations have been working since their early teens, and therefore no longer see the end of it. On top of all of this, Monti’s ministers have attempted to defend the measures indulging in offensive, selfish and downright stupid comments, for example about Italian youngsters being “choosy” and pretentious when it comes down to getting a job, completely ignoring the privileged positions of their own children who have clearly been favored by their parents’ connections.

Perhaps Monti’s “Civic Choice” list is an attempt to make amends, and make up for some of the harsh measures he was “forced” to carry out by the European Union? He has in fact announced that he wants to modify the law on council tax and suspend a future tax-increase. But is he to be trusted? Or does Italy risk ending up with something worse than Berlusconi?